“And I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God…” (Exodus 6:7)
Parashat Va’era describes Moses’ attempts to get Pharoah to free the Israelites and opens the dramatic sequence of Pharoah’s intransigence in the face of the plagues. The opening of the parasha (portion)often is overlooked, which is a shame, since it makes an important statement about God.
Va’era begins, “Elohim spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai.” (Ex. 6:2-3) Two verses, three names of God, each evoking a different image. Elohim means “Master of all Forces and Omnipotent.” Adonai usually connotes “Lordship.” Shaddai is harder to pin down because once the Torah is given, it appears very rarely as one of God’s names.
The S’fat Emet (1847-1905;Yehudah Leib Alter, the 2nd Rebbe of the Gerer Chassidim) explains Shaddai means “she-dai” (it is enough), implying God’s inherent k’dusha (sanctity) is enough to trigger the patriarchs’ belief and faith. Moses’ generation, on the other hand, needs proof of God’s power. The plagues are sent so demonstrate God’s ultimate sovereignty to the Israelites as well as to Pharoah and the Egyptians.
Rabbi Karyn Kedar (the first woman rabbi to serve in Jerusalem) takes a different approach. She connects Shaddai to shad, the Hebrew word for a woman’s breast. It makes sense for the patriarchs and matriarchs to use female imagery for their God since Genesis tells the story of the birth of the first Jewish families.
Now, God’s name is not God. But, ”The Torah speaks in the language of human beings” (Babylonian Talmud B’rachot 31a). Our limited language provides metaphors that trigger images created from God’s many attributes. Va’era reminds there is no single, all-encompassing name for God. Ultimately, the God we imagine is a personal choice.