YHVH and Language

by David Mivasair

From Keren Or -- Feb-Mar 5760

"My name for this world" One of the most profound words in any language is the Hebrew name of God, the awesome, ineffable four-lettered name written Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey. Embodying the Hebrew root of Being, transcending and unifying past, present, and future, it may best be understood as Martin Buber translated it in his German version of the Torah: Was-Is-Will Be. The name YHVH evokes both the All of Being and the One which makes all be. As Reb Arthur Waskow teaches, the YHVH name is all breath, all semi-vowels. YHVH is the Breath of Life.

In Moshe Rabbeinu's first encounter with the Holy Presence at the burning bush, he asked how to tell the Israelite slaves who it was who sent him. Out of the flame he heard, "YHVH . . . zeh shemi le-olam -- this is my name forever." (Ex. 3:15)

Raising the holy sparks from beneath the surface more than two hundred years ago, the Baal Shem Tov used this verse to give over a great insight into God- language. "Le-olam" means "forever"; it also means "for the world". The Baal Shem Tov taught us that "zeh shemi le-olam" also means, "This is my name for the world." The Hasidic sefer Or ha-Me'ir brings out the Baal Shem's teaching: "Even though the name YHVH holds the true essence of the One who makes All of Being be, even this name which we call and use to grasp the Essence, the name YHVH, is only 'le-olam' -- for this world -- only so that human beings may have a name to call You and to drawn forth Your influence upon us. Certainly, You transcend all naming."

Language itself both conveys meaning and obscures full understanding. To be conscious of our own religious processes, we need to be aware of the effect language has on us. Too often, our inevitably limited God-language stands in the way of a deeper understanding and truer relationship with the All of Being. We may not need language at all in order to experience the presence of the Divine. The most sublime experience is often in silence and impossible to put into words. Yet, as creatures of this world, we need language to conceptualize, to hold onto, and to share with each other our sense of the Holy. By being aware, as the Baal Shem Tov was, that language, even the ineffable four- lettered name, is but a vessel or a tool for our use we can avoid becoming trapped by the limitations inherently present in any religious language.

Several times in every traditional davvening, the kaddish comes to remind us to lift our sense of the true essence of God "le-eila min kol birchata ve-shirata. . . de-amiran be-alma -- far beyond any words, praises and songs that can be said in this world." Knowing that "zeh shemi le-olam" -- words are needed only because of our humanness in this world -- may the words of our mouths never hold us back from the deepest meditations of our hearts.



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