Reliving Sinai and exploring the names of G-d

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Yitro

During this week’s reading, the Torah is given to the Jewish people, bestowing humanity with the blueprint for leading a moral and spiritual life — a timeless covenant with the Creator. At the core of Jewish faith lies the foundational principle of the unity of G-d. Embracing this concept entails more than just acknowledging a singular Creator; it involves understanding the completeness of this Supreme Being, how His presence transcends yet manifests within the fabric of creation.

Indeed, as delineated by Maimonides and other scholars, the ongoing process of learning about (and internalizing) the specific fundamental concepts within this subject — knowledge, not faith — fulfills the first of the Ten Commandments. As we prepare for this week’s portion, where we relive the experience at Mount Sinai, it’s important to get acquainted with some vital ideas.

Progressions in revelation

One of the developing themes underlying each Torah portion is the gradual revelation of G-d’s manifestation on earth, unveiling the purpose of creation: for us to make a home for the Creator in the lowest sphere. This is represented by different names of G-d, each conveying distinct aspects of His being. When reading the Torah verses, many individuals perceive these names merely as alternative titles for the Creator. However, in Hebrew, names carry precise meanings.

As the initial book of Bereishit (Genesis) opens, during the account of creation, we encounter the name Elokim to depict the great entity that orchestrated the cosmos: “In the beginning, Elokim created the heavens and earth.” This appellation signifies the way G-d manifests in nature. It alludes to the order of the world, the interconnectedness of all things and, from our perspective, an awe-inspiring appreciation for the intricate way in which the universe is put together.

At the onset of the Exodus story, as G-d prepares Moshe for his monumental mission to free the Children of Israel through a sequence of spectacular wonders, He reveals to Moshe a deeper aspect than ever before: the name Havayah. Havayah is the pronunciation used for G-d’s essential name spelled with the four letters (yud, hei, vav, hei). It is the most sacred of names, often called “the essential Name,” “the Name of truth,” “the unique Name” or “the explicit Name.” In the Five Books of Moses, it appears 1,820 times.

Due to its sublime nature, the name Havayah can only be pronounced in the Holy Temple, and its correct pronunciation is unknown today. Therefore, we commonly refer to this name as either Hashem, simply meaning “the Name,” or Havayah, one of the permutations of its letters.

Etymologically, the name Havayah is derived from the Hebrew root h-y-a, the root form of the verb “to be.” Applied mystically, this grammatical form suggests “bringing into existence.” Thus, G-d’s greater name, as manifest in creation, can be understood to mean, “He who continuously brings (all reality) into existence.” 

In contrast to the name Elokim, signifying G-d’s ability to contract infinite light and invest Himself within the confines of nature, Havayah conveys a boundless force that transcends even the highest spiritual realms. The letters of Havayah connote a level beyond the intricate system of creation — where past, present and future merge into a single point of origin. From this limitless energy of Havayah flows the spiritual life that initiates the wondrous feat of creation ex nihilo and fuels the material world, perceptible to us through our fleshly eyes.

The majestic event

Then, at the time of the giving of the Torah, when G-d “descends,” gracing this lowest sphere with the highest Shechinah, we encounter the revelation of Anochi — a level beyond names. Indeed, no words or descriptions can fully express G-d’s essence. On this level of “I,” infinite and finite qualities, the spiritual and physical, the transcendent and natural order, are equally minuscule and distant from the source.

In English, this renowned introductory phrase — “I am the Lord your G-d” — communicates nothing specific. But in Hebrew, it relates a revolutionary message. Using our understanding of divine names, the opening three words of the first commandments read “Anochi (I am) Havayah (the Lord), Elohechah (your G-d)”: My essence (I am), which flows into the infinite power of Havayah to bring forth all existence, is now entering your personal space and capacity through this gift, the Torah.

Connecting to the names

Spiritual growth also entails the way we relate to the realities represented by these three names: Encountering Elokim is a consciousness that recognizes the spiritual force within the exterior shell of the world, like a grand soul enlivening a body. We may sense the oneness within nature, though the divine orchestration is often concealed.

Our journey on earth is marked by fluctuations, both environmental shifts and our experience of highs and lows, positive and negative reactions to an ever-evolving world. In our personal psychological training, we also encounter victories and setbacks, moments of inspiration and doubt, dedicated efforts and periods of flat performance.

This underlying notion of change — adjusting to aging, the cycles of life and death, periods of elevation and hardship — is responsible for much of our inner turmoil. For sensitive souls, uprooting anxiety caused by flux is a bigger challenge than anticipated. Yet, there is a space in our being unaffected by all changes, that reaches beyond the natural boundaries, where we cannot be touched by struggles or negativity. This is the level of Havayah within the soul. We have the capacity to overcome all obstacles by dipping into that deeper place in which we have unlimited qualities.

When activated, the influence of Havayah has the power to rectify all gaps or blemishes below, bringing new energy into our daily divine service and decision-making. However, this requires effort to change our natural disposition, aided by profound humility. The effect on our mindset and conduct is consistency, a sense of stability wherein our focus and effort remain constant (or fluctuate less). Globally, we begin to detect the hidden miracles in daily life. Psychologically, the Baal Shem Tov teaches, when one is connected to Havayah, the biggest insult and the greatest compliment from others are received equally.

This also explains why Havayah is known as the name of truth. The three-letter Hebrew word for truth, emet, comprises the first, middle and last letters of the alphabet. Conceptually, this means that truth is enduring and comprehensive; it doesn’t change. Connecting to this level thus manifests the ability to detect the one constant within the ever-changing universe.

Finally, Anochi taps into essence, a level beyond even Havayah. It is the power that enables Havayah — the force inherently beyond nature — to nevertheless enter the limits of our natural surroundings. Paradoxically, we uncover this deepest level of flow not through intense emotion or contemplation, but rather by making a greater sacrifice and commitment to perform physical action mitzvahs — a universal change introduced at Mount Sinai. These seemingly simple acts serve as a conduit to the ultimate source.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.

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