By Moshe Lerman
Awe for the names of HaShem is central to Jewish tradition. For example, we treat the tetragrammaton name, YHVH, with so much awe that we do not pronounce it as a word. Rather, we refer to it as “HaShem”, which means “The Name”. Jewish tradition says further that it is possible to achieve knowledge of an array of names of HaShem which are secrets to other people. What can be the use of a prohibition to pronounce a word? What is behind the secrecy and mystics?
In Parshat Va’eira, it says that HaShem was not known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the name YHVH. By contrast, Moshe did know this name (Shemot 6:3). Rashi explains that understanding of the depth of faithfulness expressed by this name is only accessible to who witnessed the fulfillment of promises made generations ago.
Knowledge of a name of HaShem is not knowledge of a particular sequence of letters. Who knows a name of HaShem does not know some magic code. Who knows a name of HaShem understands an attribute of the Divine.
Why then do we say that we know a name when really we understand something much deeper than a sequence of letters? Human understanding is limited. No matter how much we understand, it is as if we know nothing. Compared to the Essence of Hashem, all we can possibly know is as superficial as a name. The prohibition to pronounce the tetragrammaton name expresses that there is an infinite difference between the Divine and our understanding of Him.
At the human level, however, knowledge of HaShem is of the essence. It is our very purpose in life: To serve HaShem and to know Him, each in his own way. Knowledge of HaShem requires the study of Torah, in all of its aspects, but some of His names are accessible even through “secular” wisdoms, such as science.
From the Jewish point of view, who knows science knows very deep secrets. He knows the name Elokim, and he is truly fortunate. And yet, the scientist should know that what he knows is as nothing. What he knows is only a description, a name. The Essence of the Divine evades him.
To learn science, one needs to be smart. Torah reaches further, but to learn it is harder, as you need to be holy. The depth of understanding is according to the aspiration and purity of the soul. The sky is the limit.
"For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heavens, so that you would say, 'Who can ascend to the heavens for us and take it for us, and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?' Nor is it across the sea, so that you would say, 'Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?' Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it." (Devarim 30:11-30:14)
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