Respect

The Hidden and Revealed Name

This is My name forever.
— Exodus 3:15

One of the great religious wonders in Jewish tradition is how to pronounce God’s name; the sense of its ineffability adds to the oblique question of who and what God is. In Exodus 3, after Moses questioned who he was to take on his leadership role, he immediately transitioned to who God is, in verses that wrap the mystery in an enigma: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Glad we cleared that up.

According to the Ten Commandments, we are not allowed to take God’s name in vain, which is not hard when we have no idea what God’s name actually is or how to pronounce it. To clarify, we use an English term that makes it all better: the Tetragrammaton. Judges of this weekend’s National Spelling Bee might try this one to slip up an ambitious young speller.
 
It turns out that in this past week’s Talmud cycle, the issue of why God’s name is not made public is discussed, using the verse above as a prooftext: “This is My name forever.” In Hebrew, the words forever and hidden are linguistically related, leading to this incident: “Rava planned to expound the way to say God’s hidden name in a public teaching. A certain elder said to him, “It is written so that it can be read l’alem - keep it hidden” [BT Kiddushin 71a].
 
Then the passage adds this confounding detail: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: ‘Not as I am written, am I pronounced.’” As it turns out, long ago, the sages would tell anyone who wanted to know, God’s 12-letter name. But then people used it disrespectfully so the priests used to say it only when blessing the people, but sang it absorbed in a melody. Thus, it would remain concealed. One sage, it’s recorded, inclined his ear to hear it. People will always be curious.
 
According to this debate, if people were to treat God’s name respectfully, then God’s name would be used more publicly. No one wants to get too casual with the Almighty. The Talmud continues to this effect: “

Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Rav: ‘The 42-letter name of God may be transmitted only to one who is discreet, and humble and stands at least half his life and does not get angry and does not get drunk and does not insist he is right. And anyone who knows this name and is careful with it and guards its purity is believed above and treasured below and fear of him is cast upon the creatures and he inherits two worlds, this world and the World to Come,” [BT Kiddushin 71b].

So now we understand who gets to use God’s name: people who are Godly. What underlines most of the above description is the characteristic of humility. Those modest in spirit are trusted not to abuse God’s name.
 
This brings us to one of the heroes of our upcoming holiday, Shavuot: Boaz. We meet Boaz in the Book of Ruth in what appears to be a preoccupied moment. “Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you!’” It’s a tender moment of elevated greeting that leads to a legal precedent. The Talmud concludes that when you greet someone, you should do so in the name of God [BT Brakhot 54a].
 
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among our people. Bearing Boaz in mind, I often greet people with “Shalom” - which is a name of God  - and part with people by saying “God bless” or “God bless you.” It feels like a little insertion of everyday holiness, and I enjoy when people say this to me. After all, we need all the blessings we can get. When I say this to non-Jews after a transaction, they regularly bless me back. But if you say this to Jews, they often raise an eyebrow and say simply, “Goodbye.”
 
This fascinating debate about the use of God’s name is, at heart, an attempt to keep a healthy balance between spiritual intimacy and proper reverence. What we find in Boaz is a man who saw in his employees, and Ruth in particular, a shadow of God - and as a result, he treated them with utmost care and respect.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Growing Wiser

Is there not wisdom in the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?
— Job 12:12

No doubt some of you saw this week’s front page Wall Street Journal about Brazilian seniors (those over 60), who are allowed by law to go to the front of lines and receive immediate attention. Those who prevent the elderly from this new privilege can receive a fine of about $750 per infraction. Many Brazilian supermarkets, banks and post offices have “caixas preferenciais” - preferential lines - for seniors and those who are pregnant, have young children or have a disability. Some protest that people who are otherwise sprightly are taking advantage, the “dyed hair and a pocket full of Viagra” syndrome, or exploiting this privilege to do jobs for younger family members and friends. Some seniors don’t want to use this privilege for fear that they will be looked at unkindly by people on the same line. Yet others recognize the importance that this communicates about aging in society generally. By the time one reaches these golden years, life should get a little easier. People should show a little more respect.
 
The article reminded me of being on an Israeli bus where it is common to see a verse from Leviticus on the bus wall near the front to encourage people to give up their seats: “Stand up in the presence of the aged and honor the face of the elderly” (19:32). It is a statement of pride; it is the application of one of our prized values. We treat the elderly with respect. The same word in Hebrew - zekanim - is used both to describe seniors and sages. “Grey hair,” states Proverbs, “is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness” (16:31). In antiquity, longevity was a sign of God’s blessing.
 
Yet, we also find another perspective on aging in Jewish texts, one of candor and pain. King David wanted to reward Barzillai, a wealthy gentleman from the Galilee who helped David at a difficult time, by granting him special privileges. “Now Barzillai was very old, eighty years of age...The king said to Barzillai, ‘Cross over with me and stay with me in Jerusalem, and I will provide for you.’ But Barzillai answered the king, ‘How many more years will I live, that I should go up to Jerusalem with the king? I am now eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between what is enjoyable and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of male and female singers? Why should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?’” (II Samuel 19: 32-35). In reflecting on his old age, Barzillai refuses to be a burden to the king and speaks of the despair of getting old and being unable to enjoy what he did when he was younger.
 
Ecclesiastes takes a more maudlin and lyrical approach:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them'- before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets” (12:2-5)

Desire fades. The struggles of aging augment. Death knocks.
 
In one midrash, a woman who ages with weariness and despair becomes tired of her life. She visits a rabbi to ask for his advice since she no longer wants to live. He told her to stop attending synagogue every day. Three days later she passed away (Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 943).
 
This story contains a very important message about aging. What kept this woman alive was her synagogue - her faith community sustained her. The grieving over who she once was diminished in the presence of others. She had somewhere to go. She had people to see. She had prayers to say. God, too, was a companion to her in her old age, in the stunning words of the prophet: “Even to your old age I am He; and even to white hairs will I carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). God remains a constant and will carry us all through the last chapter, especially if we cannot count on others to carry us.
 
Synagogues, community centers and other gathering spots are places that offer us the opportunity to carry the elderly, to help manage the crumbling self-worth of someone who is struggling with getting old. So maybe Brazil has it right. Giving seniors a little advantage is a slim way we compensate for the many challenges of this time in the lifespan. And maybe we should not rely on God to do all the heavy lifting. We also need to carry our elders.
 
When is the last time, outside of your own relatives, that you dispelled the loneliness of a senior citizen with your company? Schedule a next time.
 
Shabbat Shalom