Our tradition teaches us to avoid using the divine name. We are instructed not to pronounce it in vain, and not to refer to it directly in writing. Some permit the name to be spelled out in languages other than Hebrew, whereas I personally follow the stricter opinion and use other terms to designate the deity.
Thus, in these columns I typically refer to “The Lord;” or to “The Almighty;” to “The Holy One Blessed Be He;” or to “The Master of the Universe.” The most common substitute for the divine name, in both speech and writing, is simply Hashem, “The Name”.
I was privileged to have known all four of my grandparents, as well as one great-grandmother, my maternal grandmother’s mother. Most of them, especially the women, had entirely different appellations for the divine One. Some referred to Him as “Zisse Tate in Himmel”, that is, “Sweet Father in Heaven”; others as “the Merciful One” or as “the One Above”. With one exception, my grandparents and great-grandmother were simple Jews, and certainly not theologians. The names they used to refer to the Almighty where the names given to Him by the common folk back in the old country, Eastern Europe.
The exception was my paternal grandfather, Reb Chaim Yitzchak, who was an erudite Talmud scholar, who studied Torah literally day and night for all of his 80 years. He was a student of one of the great sages of the early 20th century, Rabbi Sholom Schwadron, known as the Berzhaner Rav. He not only had a different designation for the deity, but he had a profound rationale for why he chose it.
The Yiddish term he used was “der Bashefer”, or, in English, “the Creator”, and his reason was directly related to this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16).
I cannot mention this grandfather’s name without describing my relationship with him. First of all, although his preferred language was Yiddish, my sisters and I called him “Grandpa”. Although he did not live with us, he visited us frequently for weeks at a time. I especially remember an entire summer, soon after I was bar mitzvah, which he spent with us, and during which I was his roommate and study partner.
Invariably, Grandpa would spend almost all of his time with us studying Torah. He would usually repair to the Beit Midrash, or study hall, of the local synagogue, and somehow convince the custodian to lend him the keys so that he would have constant access to the quiet of the library and to its sacred books.
In the early years of his visits he would isolate himself in the synagogue library and we would see him only for meals and when he prepared to go to bed at night. He would wake up and return to the synagogue long before any of us was awake in the morning.
I vividly remember the day when I was about nine years old and he invited me to awaken early the next morning to accompany him. I was excited by the prospect of leaving home when it was still dark outside, although I must confess that I was not equally excited by the prospect of several hours of intense study.
I did accompany him that next morning, and we did study quite intensely. I will never forget that Torah session and the text we studied together. He began by reminding me that the upcoming Torah portion of the week was Parshat Bo. Then he asked me to name the second most important rabbinic Bible commentary after that of Rashi. As a fourth grader, I was totally unaware of any Bible commentary other than that of Rashi.
He then introduced me to Ramban, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, or Nachmanides. He briefly narrated Ramban’s life story: a rabbi and doctor in Spain, a great debater who argued with, and bested, Christian theologians in the presence of the King of Spain, and who eventually had to flee Spain to the land of Israel where he died. He also taught me that Ramban considered living in Israel to be a great mitzvah.
“One day,” he promised, “I will teach you the poem he wrote when he first beheld the ruins of Jerusalem. But today I want to teach you what I think is the most important passage in all of this great man’s writings. And I want you to promise me that you will review this passage every year when Parshat Bo comes around.”
In those days, nine-year-olds did not challenge their grandparents, and so I unhesitatingly promised that I would do so. He uttered the formula “Bli Neder”, “without a vow”, so that my childish commitment would not have the full force of a vow, and then began to read the passage.
Ramban comments at length on the importance of the story of the Exodus, and the miraculous release of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. He stresses that by remembering the Exodus from Egypt we assert our belief in the omnipotence of the Almighty. He goes on to say that it is because of the supreme importance of the Exodus that so many divine commandments were issued to assure that we will remember it for all generations.
Then Grandpa’s voice rose a notch or two as he slowly quoted these words: “A person who purchases a mezuzah for one mere ‘zuz’ and affixes it to his door has already proclaimed that the world has a Creator who is all-knowing and provident, who communicates through prophecy, and who benefits those who do His will…”
He looked at me lovingly at that point and asked, “Do you see now what even a small mitzvah like mezuzah really signifies?”
I nodded my head in assent. He continued reading: “The purpose of all commandments is to instill in us belief in the Lord and gratitude to Him for creating us… The intent of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of synagogues and congregational prayer is just so that there will be a place for all the sons of Adam to assemble and proclaim to the Almighty who created them, “briyotecha anachnu, we are your creatures!”
“That is why,” he clarified. “I always refer to Him as “der Bashefer”, “the Creator.”
Grandpa must have been satisfied that I understood the message of that pre-dawn lesson. Whenever we subsequently met during the next more than 20 years he would say to me in Yiddish, “Vie azoy Sagt der Ramban? How does Ramban put it?” And I unfailingly responded “Briyotecha anachnu, we are Your creatures.”
A footnote: many years later, and with some trepidation, I shared with Grandpa that I had been reading the philosophical works of a German theologian named Schleiermacher, who defined the essence of religion as “kreaturgefuhl”, a feeling of “creature-ness”. Grandpa was not surprised. He smiled, and urged me to read the passage we studied together that morning very carefully. “You will note,” he said, “that Ramban does not say ‘a place for all the sons of Israel to assemble ‘, but rather ‘a place for all the sons of Adam to assemble ‘. The prophet Isaiah prophesied that ‘My house will be a house of prayer for all nations. ‘” (Isaiah 56:7 )
By whatever name we know Him all He wants from all of us children of Adam is that we feel and acknowledge that we are His creatures.