God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my Name [Yod, Hay, Vov, Hay].” (Exod. 6:2-3)
Judaism has always shown its reverence for the name of God by the tradition of not pronouncing it. Thus, the letters Yod, Hay, Vov, Hay are combined with the vowels for Elohim and the pronounced word Adoshem or “Lord” is substituted for the vocalization. (The name Jehovah is the result of a literal rendering of “the Name” according to its consonants and vowels and, consequently, is not Jewish.)
There is an implication to this reverence for the Name that is of great spiritual value. In a sense, to name something is to define it and, possibly, to control it. (This is the implication of Adam’s giving names to all the creatures in the Garden of Eden.)
By not being able to name the Holy One Blessed Be He, we become conscious that there is a gap between the finitude of human knowledge and attainment and the infinite dimensions encompassed by the Divine Name. Thus, just as we shall never know more than our minds are capable of grasping at any one stage of human development, so our knowledge of the Divine must remain incomplete and our ideas must always be subject to possible revision.
When our tradition says Dibra Torah b’lasahon b’nay Adam—the Torah speaks in human language—it is aware that whatever we know of the Divine can only be expressed in human terms. All the spiritual ideals we identify with the Holy One Praised Be He must, therefore, be conditional. They can never be absolutes because only the Divine One is absolute. Yet neither are our ideals merely relative to a particular era and social condition. Over the centuries, Torah concepts such as Kibud Av V’Aym (honoring one’s parents), Shalom Bayit (domestic peace), and G’ milut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness) are not abstractions. They are concretized through the written and oral Torah and become standards to measure conduct in the here and now of every age. Calling upon the Name is a demand that we refine our behavior according to the standards that our developing tradition identifies it with.
Rabbi Natan M. Landman is a retired U.S. Air Force Chaplain with extensive experience as a teacher of Judaism.