Rabbi Deborah J. Brin • Jewish Ceremonies, Rituals & Pastoral Counseling
©2021 Rabbi Deborah J. Brin — Member: Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
Albuquerque, New Mexico • Jewish Ceremonies, Rituals & Pastoral Counseling
B’Shem Havayah — Rosh HaShannah 2014
Wednesday, 14 January 2015
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
A few days ago, I did what I do every day. I put a house key in my
pocket and took the dog for a walk. When I returned, much to my
dismay, even though I had the key I was locked out. The screen
door had somehow locked behind me when I left the house, so I
was unable to get to the real door that had the lock in it.
I wished I could have solemnly said, in a magician’s stentorian
voice: “abracadabra, the screen door will now unlock itself.”
Did you know that “abracadabra”, a magical incantation, is
probably from the Aramaic? It is pronounced ‘abra’ ‘c’dabra’ and
means something like: I create that which I speak.
Words have great power. We are told that God created the world
by speaking. “God said, let there be light, and there was light.”
[Gn.1:3] Human beings across many cultures have believed that if
you know the exact right words to speak, in the exact right way,
then the speaker will have great power. It was also believed that
great power was inherent in the very name of God, and could be a
“mighty and awesome force” if the name was known and properly
pronounced. [Trachtenberg, p.79].
We have many names for God in our tradition. You may recognize
some of them: El, Elohim, Shaday, Tzur Yisroel, HaMakom,
Adonai, Adonai Eloheinu, Ribbono Shel Olam, HaKadosh Baruch
Hu, HaRachaman, Ayn Sof, to name just a few of them. Why do
we have so many names for God? One reason is because we are
trying to speak about something that is impossible to put into
words. Each name is said to embody different characteristics of
the One Underlying Unified Reality. ???? Yah is another name for
God. This one is thought to be a shortened version of the
unpronounceable name of God depicted by 4 Hebrew letters, Yud
Heh Vav Heh.
These four letters, sometimes transliterated as YHWH, are
referred to as the ‘tetragrammaton’. This name of God Yud Heh
Vav Heh appears 6,823 times in the Hebrew Bible.
What do these four letters mean? Each Hebrew word is made up
of at least three letters, called the ‘root’. Every Hebrew word that
has those same three letters at its core is related in meaning.
Scholars say that the tetragrammaton, the YudHehVavHeh, comes
from the root that means “to be”, or “to exist”. The root is ‘heh,
vav, heh’. Other scholars say that the four letters YudHehVavHeh
connote a special form of existence where past, present and
future are all the same. [Tur, Orach Chaim 5 = Yaakov ben Asher,
1270 – 1340]. Rabbi Arthur Green, a modern mystic and scholar,
says that “Yod, Hay, Vav, Hay. . . [is a] configuration of the verb
to be, [and is] translated something like “all of being and
becoming” or “is-was-will be”. [“God, World, Person: A Jewish
Theology of Creation” Dr. Arthur Green; Melton
The meaning of YHVH as Existence is underscored in the Biblical
narrative about Moses and the burning bush. In the beginning of
the Book of Exodus, in chapter 3, we are told the story of Moses’
encounter with YHVH. Moses is off tending his father-in-law’s
sheep when he sees a bush that is aflame with fire, a bush that is
burning, but like some magical visual effect in a movie, the fire
isn’t damaging the bush at all. This catches Moses’ attention, and
he turns aside to get a closer look. This is when Moses’ first direct
encounter with YHVH begins. Once YHVH has his attention, he
gives Moses his marching orders. Moses is to go to Pharaoh in
Egypt and release the Israelites from slavery. Moses wants to
know what kind of credibility he is going to have with the
Israelites, and asks, who shall I say sent me?
Because God’s name is so hard to translate, some Biblical texts
just transliterate the Hebrew and say, tell them “Ehyeh Asher
Ehyeh” sent you. Other texts, basing their translations on the
concepts of ‘existence and being’ say things like, “I Am That I Am
sent you”; or “I Will Be What I Will Be” sent you.
Let’s skip forward in time to the days of the ancient Temple when
we still had a High Priest. He would go into the Holy of Holies on
Yom Kippur and pronounce the secret name of God three times,
during each of the three confessions that he made.
Before venturing into the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would
engage in arduous preparations so that he would be ritually pure,
and spiritually and intellectually prepared for the task of
pronouncing the secret Name of God. Immediately before
entering the Holy of Holies, he would tie a rope around his ankle.
Why? Because any mistake inside the Holy of Holies could be
deadly. Since he was the only one allowed into the Holy of Holies,
pulling on the rope would be the only way for the priests with
lower rank to get the body out.
At some point, the Talmud says 40 years before the destruction
of the Temple, the priests stopped pronouncing the Name. [Yoma
39b]. Eventually the knowledge of how to pronounce it was lost.
Two of our oldest prayers, the Barechu and the Shema, come
from the early Temple period and they have the YudHehVavHey,
the unpronounceable letters of God’s name in them. How do we
pronounce if it is a secret? We use a substitution.
Over and over in our liturgy, whenever we see the YHVH, the four
letters that represent existence, being, and breathing, we
customarily say: “Adonai”, a word that means “my Lord or my
It is no wonder that people are reluctant to talk about God when
we are taught to refer to God in hierarchical, gendered terms. The
typical language we encounter when we open a prayer book can
frustrate our efforts to be engaged in a personal spiritual journey.
We bounce away from the text rather than enter into its deeper
In the ‘70’s women in particular started experimenting with God
language because we felt disenfranchised. It wasn’t long before
men joined us in the process. The traditional emphasis on
hierarchical, anthropomorphic, masculine gendered God-language
was alienating and off-putting. We have tried to create other
ways to pray and there have been many different formulations
attempted. Some of them have survived in popular usage long
enough to be printed in the newest liberal prayer books. One
example would be “N’varaych et Ayn HaChayim… let us bless the
Source of Life” created by Marcia Falk, a contemporary feminist
poet who writes in both Hebrew and English. That language tips
the hierarchy over and makes it inclusive and accessible, while at
the same time referring to a sense of the Divine as the Source of
The prayer book that we use on Shabbat, inspired by Reb Zalman
Schachter-Shalomi and edited by Rabbi David Zaslow, uses
primarily traditional God language and occasionally substitutes
“ruach/spirit” for “Melech/king”. An example would be Rabbi
Shefa Gold’s morning chant of gratitude the ‘modah ani/modeh
ani’ prayer uses ‘ruach’ in place of ‘melech’, spirit in place of king.
The translation becomes I gratefully acknowledge You, Living and
enduring Spirit. The prayer book offers three formulations to
choose from for the morning blessings: the traditional one in the
masculine and two others in the feminine. It also liberally uses
Yah in place of the unpronounceable YHVH. Yah is a Biblical name
for God, and is thought to be a shortened form of it.
The word Halleluyah, is a word that has migrated from our
tradition into other religious traditions. It is a compound word
made up of ‘hallel’ to praise, and ‘Yah’, God. Halleluyah means: let
us praise the unexplainable source of existence, the underlying
one-ness of all things.
It is much easier to play with the language about God in the
English than in the Hebrew. One of the reasons that
experimenting with God language has been so difficult is that
Hebrew is a gendered language and the formulations are either in
the masculine or the feminine. For most of us, learning to say the
blessings and the prayers the way most “normative” Jewish
communities say it is hard enough. To try to get our mouths
around new phrases in the feminine is too hard and
uncomfortable for most people.
Last night we spoke about music as a metaphor for community.
The band played the song written by Rabbi Moshe Shur called
Ivdu Et HaShem B’simcha. A phrase from Psalm 100:2, that means
“serve God with joy”. When we all were singing it, I advised the
Hebrew readers not to use the text itself, which says serve YHVH,
but instead to look at the transliteration and use what it says:
serve HaShem – serve The Name with joy. HaShem is a traditional
way of referring to the Isness of the Universe without using one
of God’s names.
There is another formulation that I was introduced to recently and
would like to share with you. It is another Hassidic way of
referring to the YHVH, the Existence, Being, Is-ness, the Unitive
Consciousness of All Life. That is to say “ha-vah-yah”.
It is the YHVH scrambled in a different order — HVYH. It still has
all of the same letters, they are just in a different order and
I started experimenting with this formulation a few months ago
and find it to be very liberating. Perhaps because I have no history
with it, I have no baggage about it either. For me, there is no
inherent implication of hierarchy, power-over, or gender.
I don’t have to have a filter in place when praying by using
Havayah. I find that saying ‘havayah’ is expansive rather than
constricting, and makes it much easier for me to access a sense of
myself as a participant in the existence of the universe, a drop in
the Ocean of Being, or as Zalman would say, a cell in the Global
Mind [heard at a lecture, Spiritual Director’s International, May
2014]. I encourage you to experiment with it, too.
Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Art Green and Shefa Gold and
Dr. Marcia Falk are all reporting in about a mystical experience of
God. All of us can have mystical experiences of God, experiences
that may be fleeting or expansive, where we become one with the
universe, feeling ourselves breathing and being breathed. As an
experiment, let’s do the Shema together. Rather than doing it in
the usual fashion, let’s substitute ‘havayah’ for “YudHehVavHeh”.
The translation of the Shema then becomes something like:
Listen Up Everybody, Our God is being and becoming. Being-
becoming is One. [adapted from Dr. Arthur Green “God, World,
Person: A Jewish Theology of Creation” Melton Journal/Winter/1990].
Should you stand or sit when reciting the Shema? The simple
answer is ‘yes’. If you are sitting when it is time to say the Shema,
then you sit; if you already standing, then you stand. It is through
the influence of the Reform movement that many of us choose to
stand while saying the Shema. For this experiment choose a
comfortable position for yourself that will maximize your ability
to experience this familiar prayer in a new way.
We’ll do the Shema several times, once altogether and then in a
cacophonous way with everyone doing it at your own tempo.
After all of the recitations of the Shema have stopped, we’ll do it
one more time in unison and then remain in silence for a short
time. Even for just a fraction of a second, during the recitation or
in the quiet that follows, you may experience the radical
awareness of life itself living you. Existence being you. An open
and spacious sense of connectedness, being and becoming a part
of the vast Oneness of the All of Everything.
The first time we do it together, try drawing out the word Shema
- - - give yourself time to tune in and pay attention. This is the
new phrase: Shema Yisrael, Havayah Eloheinu, Havayah Echad.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said,”to be is to be holy”. I understand
that to mean that we don’t have to do anything else but breathe,
be, be aware of your aliveness. Live.
Because God’s name is so
hard to translate, some
Biblical texts just
transliterate the Hebrew
and say, tell them “Ehyeh
Asher Ehyeh” sent you.
The traditional emphasis
masculine gendered God-
language was alienating
All of us can have
mystical experiences of
God, experiences that
may be fleeting or
expansive, where we
become one with the
ourselves breathing and