Calling God Into Being
Sometimes we need a new name for God. The ways we’ve known God so far may feel limited, inadequate, or even disappointing. In Parashat Va’Era, Moshe is lucky enough to have God disclose a new name, one that will usher in redemption. Learning new names for God that represent a different kind of relationship, or new ways for God to show up in the world, is not generally so straightforward. Sometimes we have to be proactive, whether out of gratitude or desperation, and call God into being in new ways.
When Moshe first meets God at the burning bush, he asks God’s name (Exodus 3:13). His query reminds us that God has many different names throughout Torah, revealed at different times or to different people. Often a query about a divine name is dismissed.1 Here, God responds cryptically saying “I will be what I will be,” and then adds, “YHVH the God of your ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov,” described as an everlasting and abiding name (3:14-16). Yet, in Parashat Va’Era, God explains that the name by which the patriarchs knew God was different than the name Moshe will come to know.
2וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי ה'׃ 3וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵ-ל שַׁ-דָּי וּשְׁמִי ה' לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם:
2Elohim spoke to Moshe and said to him, “I am YHVH, 3but I appeared to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov as El Shaddai, while my name YHVH was not known to them.”
In one understanding, the difference is that God as the name “El Shaddai” did not fulfill the promises made to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov—and yet, they never criticized God’s ways.2 Moshe gets mad when God’s promises of redemption backfire (at the end of Parashat Shemot, 5:22-23), but he will come to know a different side of God, who fulfills promises. Up until now, being in relationship with God has been synonymous with disappointment. Now, God is ready to show up in a new way.
In contrast to Moshe, to whom God divulges divine names, others proactively name God. Hagar names God out of gratitude after a divine being saves her son Yishmael, and speaks of “God of my seeing/being seen (א-ל רואי).”3 There is something subversive in Hagar’s act of naming God, an act that a parent generally does for a child, coming from a position of power.4 A name expresses a vision for what someone is or could become, and from the perspective of a parent also contains an element of expectation for what a person should strive to become. When Hagar invents the name “God of my seeing/being seen,” she is not only articulating gratitude for this divine encounter, but also calling on God to live up to this name in an ongoing way, seeing and caring for vulnerable people.
There is another kind of human initiative in naming God that does not stem from gratitude, but from doubt and desperation. In midrash traditions, we find that both Avraham and Hannah call on God with new names, stemming from their respective experiences of infertility. According to the Talmud, Hannah invokes God by a new name, which no one had used before.
תלמוד בבלי ברכות לא:
"ותאמר ה' צבאות", אמר רבי אלעזר: מיום שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו, לא היה אדם שקראו להקדוש ברוך הוא "צבאות", עד שבאתה חנה וקראתו "צבאות". אמרה חנה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם, מכל צבאי צבאות שבראת בעולמך קשה בעיניך שתתן לי בן אחד?
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 31b
“[Hannah] said: YHVH Tzeva’ot” (1 Samuel 1:11). Said R. Elazar: From the day the Holy Blessed One created the world, no one called the Holy Blessed One “Tzeva’ot (hosts)” until Hannah came and called God Tzeva’ot. Said Hannah before the Holy Blessed One, “Master of the world, from all the hosts of hosts that You created in Your world, would it be hard for You to give me one son?”
Hannah calls on Adonai Tzeva’ot, God of hosts, who created a world teeming with creatures and must have the capacity to give her just one child.5 This name is not merely descriptive—it is strategic. She demands that God show up for her through this quality of abundance. Her frustration and anger about not having a child lead her to engage with God on new terms. Although she cannot birth a child, she can generate a new name for God.
Intriguingly, a parallel tradition exists about Avraham, in an almost identical formulation. Avraham too calls upon God in a way no one had before, this time as Adonai:
תלמוד בבלי ברכות ז:
אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי: מיום שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם, לא היה אדם שקראו להקדוש ברוך הוא "אדון", עד שבא אברהם וקראו אדון, שנאמר: "ויאמר אדני אלהים במה אדע כי אירשנה".6
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 7b
Said R. Yohanan in the name of R. Shimon ben Yohai: From the day the Holy Blessed One created the world, no one called the Holy Blessed One “Adon (master)” until Avraham came and called [God] Adon. As it is said, “[Avraham] said, ‘Adonai Elohim, how will I know that I will inherit it [the land of Canaan]?’” (Genesis 15:8).
Some commentaries focus on dominion (אדנות) as Avraham’s name for God because of his evangelism, convincing others of God’s existence and power.7 But in this scene, he questions God about how the divine promise to inherit the land will come true when he has no heir. God’s reassurance rings hollow when God has not fulfilled even the most basic part of the promise, “behold, you have not given me a child!” (15:3). The directness of this speech is paralleled by Moshe pointedly saying to God that the promise of redemption has backfired, “You have not saved your people!” (Exodus 5:23). Contrary to the interpretation we saw above—that asserted patriarchs did not criticize God’s ways even when promises were unfulfilled—Avraham does seem critical of God in this moment.
What could be the meaning of a name that focuses on God’s dominion if it is in fact born out of Avraham’s frustration, disappointment and perhaps even doubt about God? One midrash links this name to God’s capacity to overcome “fate,” in those times seen as what was inevitable because of astrological signs. In this reading, Avraham was destined to be infertile based on astrology, but God had power over this fate.8 The point of the name Adonai is to say “God is my master—not fate.” Like Hannah, in the context of Avraham’s infertility, this aspect of God is not something he has personally experienced yet. Unlike Hagar coming up with a name for God after an encounter that has demonstrated the divine capacity of generosity, Avraham is calling upon God to show up for him in a new way that defies his fate of infertility. It is not responsive, but proactive.
Avraham’s naming of God as “Adon” becomes our legacy. The Gemara relates that Daniel, generations later, used the same name when praying in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, invoking the merit of “the one who called God Adon.”9 Based on the trajectory traced here, this merit of Avraham is not an unquestioning faith but stems from speaking with God honestly about his doubts and disappointments, and generating a new name for God to become what Avraham needs. Our inheritance of “the God of Avraham” is not at all static. Rather “the God of Avraham” is one who is called into being based on our honesty and initiative to name who God must be and what God must do.
We can bring this posture of “calling into being” into our relationships more broadly when we are deeply disappointed with others, or with the world. Sometimes a new mode will emerge of its own accord, like God revealing this name in Parashat Va’Era. But when a new, redemptive facet of someone’s personality, or our society, doesn’t simply volunteer itself, we don’t have to give up. From acknowledgment of our disappointment and doubt, we can summon the courage to name what it would mean to show up differently. We can call others, and even ourselves, into new ways of being and acting.
3 On this scene and its importance to Hagar and Yitzhak, see R. Shai Held’s essay on Parashat Hayyei Sarah, “Isaac’s Search: On the Akeidah and its Aftermath,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/isaacs-search.
4 R. Avital Hochstein speaks of this subversive quality poignantly in her essay on Parashat Lekh Lekha, “‘She Called God by Name’: Between Seeing and Hearing in the Meeting of Hagar and the Angel,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/she-called-god-name.
5 One version of this midrashic tradition (Pesikta Rabbati 43) has her say these words in a time of pilgrimage, when all of the people and their sons come to the sanctuary, and she is gazing upon these multitudes of people.
6 The midrash is responding to the discrepancy between God’s introduction in v. 7 (אני ה׳) and Avraham’s response in v. 8 (א-דני ה׳), and reads into this that Avraham creates this name for God that has not yet been used by any person.
7 See Maharsha to Berakhot 7b: שהיה ראש אמונה לפרסם בעיני הבריות אדנותו ויכלתו שבעולם. And also Rashba’s Perushei Ha-Haggadot to Berakhot 7b: ועל כן קראו אברהם לקב"ה אדון, שמתוך כך נודע לאנשי דורו החכמים בחכמת האיצטגנינות כי יש אדון עליהם לבטל כוחם, ונודע שהוא האדון המשגיח והיכול
8 Rashba discusses this extensively on Berakhot 7b in his Perushei Ha-Haggadot, based on Bereshit Rabbah 44:10 and Nedarim 32a: ובאמת כי יש למזלות השמים שלטון בעולם…והיה אברהם מכח מזלו אינו ראוי להוליד, זולתי שנתגבר ויצא מתחת מערכת הכוכבים ונתעלה במעשיו ונדבק לסיבה העליונה ה' יתברך שהוא אדון הכל
9 Continuation of Berakhot 7b: אמר רב: אף דניאל לא נענה אלא בשביל אברהם, שנאמר: ״ועתה שמע אלקינו אל תפלת עבדך ואל תחנוניו והאר פניך על מקדשך השמם למען א-דני״ (דניאל ט:יז). למענך מבעי ליה! אלא - למען אברהם שקראך אדון.