By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
When it comes to God, there is infinity – limitless and impossible to describe fully. Any positive description is inherently limited, and therefore incomplete at best and nearly blasphemous at worst. Maimonides recognized this, and insisted that people should speak of God only in negative language – not negative like ‘bad’ but negative like ‘not’. As it is written, ‘vehaChochmah meAyin timatzeh” (Job 28:12)’ Literally translated: “where is wisdom found?” but ‘meAyin’ could be translated as ‘from nothingness’ as in, “Wisdom from nothingness is found.” So in the negative, God is unending, incomparable, beyond all praise etc. Another solution is to describe God’s attributes or actions, as opposed to God Himself. For example, God’s love is great or God heals the broken hearted.
The infinite God is so unknowable that all names are just refractions of the ultimate truth. And the 4-letter name that is the most holy of all, Y-H-V-H, we don’t even pronounce aloud. From this we learn that a name, like any word or label, makes something finite. Somewhere between nothing and everything is many. This is the core of the promise God makes to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, to make their offspring numerous as the stars in Heaven.
Often, we look at the stars and think they are infinite, but they are one step below infinite – they are beyond our ability to count. We simply cannot count every star in the sky, nor every grain of sand on the beach. God can count the stars. And God gives each one a name (Psalm 147:4)
And as the Book of Genesis, the stories of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs ends, we begin our journey from family, to tribes to a nation beginning with the words, “these are the names.” (Ex. 1:1) In context, these are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt. Zooming out, these are the names of the children of Israel whose descendants would be remembered and redeemed from slavery. These are the names of the tribes that would settle in the promised land. These are the names of the family that would grow to fulfill God’s promise, through us, the generations destined to be numerous as the stars in the sky. And God counts us, and we each are called by name. The infinite unknowable God, knows each and every one of us by name.
As we begin this second book of the Torah, the Book of Shemot (Names), I remember this passage from Isaiah (56:5) “I will give them [who hold fast to My Covenant], in My House and within My walls, A monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.”