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YHWH-Adonai, “Knowing” God
by Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.
It's prayer time! Do you know to whom it is you are praying?
This question might seem ridiculous, and even obvious. If we are praying are we not praying to God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth? While the answer to this is a simple, yes, there is nothing simple about this question, nor is there anything simple about God.
It is easy for us to just say that God is God, and I don't have to think anymore about it. Yet, while one can say this, and indeed one can say anything that one wishes, nevertheless, such simplicity, and I might add such naivety, does not make such a statement, or its sentiments to be true.
Torah tells us, both Biblically (1 Chron. 28:9), and Halakhically (RaMBaM, YT 1:1), that as practitioners of religion, we have an obligation to “Know” God, and not just to acknowledge that He/It exists. A simple proclamation of faith, saying, “I believe in God,” or “I believe that God is the Creator,” is not enough to fulfill one's most fundamental obligation to “Know” God.
So, how does one come to “Know” God? This is the question that we will now explore. Yet, before we begin, do you now understand my first question, “to whom do you pray”? If you do not yet “Know” God, then are you praying to God, another god, a false god, or to nothing? Without “Knowing” God for sure, you cannot tell. Just saying, “I pray to God,” is not enough. Without “Knowing” God you can be fundamentally mistaken.
Your prayers might very well be going nowhere simply because you do not “Know” God, and thus you cannot possibly “know” how to address Him/It properly. Being simplistic has its moments, and its charm, but prayer is not the moment for unrefined simplicity. Simple prayer loses its charm when one does not “Know” the “God” to whom it is addressed.
In the Torah tradition God is known to us by a strange “Name” that is not really a name in a noun form, but rather a unique combination of a verb, and adjective. God's Name is YHWH. But this “Name” is not a name, with any simple meaning. The word YHWH comes from the Hebrew root verb HWH, which means “Being” or “to be.” Adding the letter Yod (Y) as a prefix to the verb root, transforms the verb from the passive to the active tense. Therefore, YHWH would translate as “Active Being.” Active Being is not a name, it is a description. Active Being proclaims that “being” or reality, is active, not passive. This would require there to be an intelligence to such activity for it to have purpose, because nothing is active without a purpose. Therefore, YHWH means the Conscious Sentience of Being. Essentially YHWH is the Universal Mind, that acts throughout all existence.
This description underlies the meaning why the Name YHWH is considered to be without pronunciation. Yet, this is only partially true. The word YHWH can receive vowels, and can thus be pronounced like any other word. The description of the Name YHWH not being pronounceable is more symbolic than it is literal. The Name YHWH is not pronounced, so as to remind us that the Conscious Sentience of Being that permeates all of existence can never be squeezed into a single word, and equally can never be squeezed into human understanding.
To remind us of our human limitations with regards to YHWH, we refer to Him/It by another Name, which is definitely much less grandiose. YHWH is called ADNY (Adonai), which simply means “Lord,” similar to the modern Hebrew term, Adoni, which simply means, “sir.” In all traditional Jewish prayer, prayers are all addressed to Adonai, even though in many prayer books, the Name for God is still written YHWH.
Many Torah observant individuals are aware of this anomaly, but usually ignore it, or overlook it. Yet, how can such a fundamental, and vital matter, such as the Name of God, be ignored or overlooked? God's Name is not Adonai. This is His/Its title, not Name. The Name is YHWH, and we do not call God by His/Its Name. How then can we say that we actually “call upon God,” or “call upon His Name,” when we do no such thing, when we do not even know His “real” Name? How can we say that we “Know” God, when we do not even know His/Its “real” Name?
The Kabbalists offer us some profound insights into this matter. First, they proclaim the classical Torah teaching that God is One, and His Name is One. This means that God is His/Its Name. So, God is YHWH, and YHWH is God. This might satisfy us theologically, however, the Kabbalists do not stop here. They go on to ask, if God and His/Its Name are actually one, why then are they referred to as two different, or distinct things? Why is it that with every blessing in the Amidah prayer, when we recite the words, “Barukh Atah Adonai” (Blessed are You, Lord), we always respond, “Barukh Hu u'Barukh Shmo (Blessed be He/It, AND Blessed be His/Its Name)? Why is this distinction made, if the two are really one, and the same?
The Kabbalist, R. Hayim Vital, in his Sha'arei Kedusha answers this in a most profound way. The Rabbi addresses a very real human problem when it comes to God and religion. While we all believe in God and His Power, we very rarely ever see the power, and never really ever get to see God. How can God be present everywhere and in everything, as the Name “Active Being” (YHWH) implies, and yet be so invisible?
R. Hayim sums up his rather extensive Kabbalistic philosophy, and explains to us very simply that with God, there exists two distinct aspects. There is God, as God exists unto Himself/Itself, but this aspect of God exists outside of creation, outside of existence, and outside of all reality. This Invisible Essence of God, is unknowable. It cannot even be referred to by any Name, or other appellation. This is God's essence. It is unknown and unknowable. It is called the Ayn, the Nothing. It is a Nothing that is something to Itself, but to us humans, it is a Nothing that is nothing. Does this sound confusing? Well then, welcome to the world of metaphysical speculations. This is not the domain of the average layperson who simply wants to serve God, and live a decent life.
R. Hayim continues to explain that God the Unknowable reveals only an aspect of His/Its unknowable essence. From this revealed aspect God can be known within existence. This knowable aspect of God is called God's Name. This Name is thus YHWH, the “Active Being” and thus Sentient Consciousness of existence. God's Name is not God's essence, it is only the part of God that can be known within creation, and thus within the mind, (and experience) of man. Therefore, when we bless God, we acknowledge both the Unknowable Essence (Barukh Hu, blessed be He/It), and His/Its revealed aspect (Barukh Shmo, blessed be His/Its Name YHWH).
This subtle, little distinction is important for us to always remember whenever we mention God. In this way, we remember and proclaim that there is more to God, and thus more to existence, that can possibly ever be understood. This is the proper grandiose image of God that Torah seeks to instill in all those who walk its sacred path. Understanding this, and acknowledging this, with every mention of God's Name in prayer (Barukh Atah Adonai), is the beginning of “knowing” God, or at least a little something about Him/It. But this is only the beginning, the smallest of first steps.
Step One in “knowing” God is to recognize that God, YHWH, is not simply some tribal chief of the Jewish people. YHWH is the Sentient Consciousness, and Active Being of all existence. To think of YHWH as any less belittles the concept. This is considered very bad according to Torah. Not to understand YHWH in this light is considered misunderstanding Him/It. Misunderstanding YHWH is Biblically referred to as veiling YHWH with a mask. This is specifically what is prohibited by the Second Commandment which states, “You shall have no other gods before Me (literally, “upon My Face). This belittling is the same mentality that led the Israelites to build the Golden Calf. They were not seeking to exchange YHWH for another god, but rather to lower the perception level of YHWH, from the grandiose and invisible, down to the perceivable and tangible. Any human attempt to humanize God is thus considered a violation of the Second Commandment.
For most, knowledge of God, and knowing YHWH, is almost non existent. The concepts about God, embraced by most, including the Torah faithful, are often so immature that they come very close to violating the Second Commandment. Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. This problem is a psychological one, and has been around since Biblical times. Since that period of human history YHWH has directed a steady stream of spiritual revelation to penetrate into the human collective unconscious, and to permeate throughout the collective mind of the race. However, this is done in stages, one little baby step at a time.
One of the steps taken by the ancient Sages was to educate the masses to refer to YHWH as Adonai. This is the common practice to this day. Realizing that the revelation of Sentient Consciousness and Active Being was far beyond the average person to grasp, the Sages devised a simpler way which would help the rank and file acquire at least the bare minimum knowledge about God. By calling God, Lord, (Adonai), this instilled within the masses the concept that there is a Higher Authority to whom each individual is held accountable. While this is not “knowing” YHWH, at least it is knowledge about YHWH.
The Kabbalists took this one step further. While God's Name is to be recited as Adonai, there is no need for it to be written as such in the prayer books. The Kabbalists devised a way in which the two Names, YHWH and ADNY (Adonai), could be written together, so that at least the concept of the two Names conjoined could be contemplated each time it is visually seen.
First, the Kabbalists established a relationship between the two Names, YHWH, and ADNY. YHWH, we know, is the revelation of the essence (although it is not the essence itself). ADNY is the expression of the Presence of God, in other words, how God is understood in the mind, and how He/It is portrayed in history, and nature. YHWH is considered to be the Inner Essence, and ADNY is considered to be the outer manifestation. Symbolically, the two are said to be in a body/soul relationship, with YHWH being the soul, and ADNY being the “body.”
Of the four letters of YHWH, it is the final letter Hey (H), that is said to represent this lowest level of Divine manifestation. In this lowest level, which corresponds to the world in which we live, YHWH is referred to as Adonai. When the Name is then written in the prayer books, the Name YHWH is written in Hebrew as usual, with one rather strange exception. The final letter Hey (H) is written in an extended form, and inside the letter itself, in small print is written the Name ADNY. Then, proceeding the Name, the letters of the two Names are knit together, uniting the letter of one Name with its corresponding letter in the other Name. This creates a special eight letter chain, which in English looks like this: YAHDWNHY.
This special Name is written in this way to remind the one saying prayers to always remember that God is far more than the God of history and nature (ADNY, Adonai), God is YHWH, the Sentient Consciousness and Active Being of existence. In other words, YHWH, is not human, and we should not expect to relate to Him/It as if He/It were. This is the next little baby step in coming to “know” YHWH.
When we come to pray, be it in ritual prayer from a prayer book, or from spontaneous expressions of our hearts or minds, we should always be focused on both the imminence and transcendence of YHWH-ADNY. While God is not human, we are nevertheless created in the Divine Image. This is merely a way of saying that our inner essence, our souls, are intimately connected to the Sentient Consciousness and Active Being of existence. When we pray, be it with words, thoughts, feelings, or something other, we only make actual contact when we commune at the soul level. When we accomplish this, we are accomplishing the true meaning, and intent of prayer.
So, to whom do you pray? It should not be just to Adonai. It should not be just to YHWH. Rather, we must open our minds to grasp the deeper reality of what it means that there is a God, a Sentient, Active Being to underlying all of existence. This is beyond all concept and contemplation (Ayn, the Nothing), but at least it's a start; one that we human beings are required to make. This then is the path to how we come to “Know” God, and thus, to serve Him/It wisely and properly.
The Written Works of Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright (C) 1997 - 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.