What’s In A Name?

Just as the introduction of God's new name represents a shift in our relationship with God, our different names and titles also symbolize different relationships and interactions.

Commentary on Parashat Vaera, Exodus 6:2 - 9:35


  • Despite God’s message that they will be redeemed from slavery, the Israelites’ spirits remain crushed. God instructs Moses and Aaron to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (6:2-13)
  • The genealogy of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and their descendants is recorded. (6:14-25)
  • Moses and Aaron perform a miracle with a snake and relate to Pharaoh God’s message to let the Israelites leave Egypt. (7:8-13)
  • The first seven plagues occur. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh rescinds each offer to let the Israelites go. (7:14-9:35)

Focal Point

God spoke to Moses and said, “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 Y-H-V-H. (Exodus 6:2-3)

Your Guide

Why does God reveal this new name to Moses at this point in the Exodus story?

What does God imply by mentioning the earlier Genesis name El Shaddai?

How does Moses’ relationship with God compare with the Patriarchs’ relationship with God in these verses?

By the Way…

“And Adonai God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts. (Genesis 2:19-20)

“What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” (Genesis 32:28-30)

A good name is preferable to great riches. (Proverbs 22:1)

Rabbi Shimon said, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. However, the crown of a good name is greater than all of them.” (Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Forebears) 4:13)

Adonai is a name, like “Fred.” God is a job description, like “a lawyer.” (Joel Grishaver, And You Shall Be a Blessing)

“I am Adonai.” (Exodus 6:2) To what can this be compared? To a corporate executive who said to her children, “This is my private phone number, one that not even your father knows. If you are in trouble, use it to reach me–it doesn’t go through any switchboard–it is a direct line. And, by the way,” she also said, “use it to call me every day, just so I know how you are doing.” (Joel Grishaver, And You Shall Be a Blessing)

“O be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” (Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

Your Guide

Think of the names, titles, or nicknames that people call or have called you in various social contexts. How does each nickname reflect the relationship you have with the person or group in each case?

Think of a person whom you address by a formal title (e.g., Mister, Doctor, Professor, Rabbi). In what ways does the use of that title influence your relationship with that person? Imagine what it would be like to refer to that person by his or her first name. Do you think that your relationship to him or her would change as a result?

Have you ever had the opportunity to give a living being a name? What thoughts and feelings went into that decision?

Can you remember the first time you were addressed by a formal title and not by your first name? How did that make you feel?

Consider the quote from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Do you think that your reactions to an unknown or nameless entity would change if you gave it a specific name?

D’var Torah

Names are powerful. In ancient cultures it was believed that knowing the true name of something gave you control over it. Today our relationships to people and things are often defined by the names we use for them. People have different names in different social situations. When we give something a name, we define its very nature.

In this week’s Torah portion, God reveals the divine four-letter name Y-H-V-H to Moses. This represents a paradigm shift in the Israelites’ relationship to God. Traditional understanding connects the name Elohim with God’s attribute of justice, while Y-H-V-H represents God’s attribute of mercy. It is this name, which we do not actually pronounce (using Adonai or other substitutions instead), that we connect with the second-person, informal “You” in the phrase Baruch Atah Adonai, “Praised/Blessed are (close-personal-friend) You, Y-H-V-H.”

Curiously, this four-letter name is related to the future tense of the Hebrew verb “to be:” Y-H-V-H could be read as the verb “will be.” In direct contrast to the idolatrous societies of ancient Egypt and Canaan, the God of the Israelites is not a physical thing–a noun–but rather a verb–a becoming, an evolving potential. Just as we continue to grow and mature as spiritual individuals and as a society, so, too, does God continue to evolve and change along with us.

Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

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