A Torah thought inspired by the upcoming high holiday season.
Throughout the text of the Torah, we are confronted with two major aspects of God's "personality" -- the trait of justice and the trait of mercy. The former is signaled by the use of the Hebrew word often transliterated 'elohim.' Mercy is brought out through the 4 letter name, the tetragrammaton. I see the "attributes" as more significant than this divide, and the names' uses as pointing to an additional dimension to our interaction with the divine.
During the account of the creation, the name "elohim" is used (I am writing the complete name, and not substituting the K for the H for a couple of reasons -- one will be apparent soon and the other is that I see the discussion of Torah a valid place in which to use a name of God). Creation, the rabbis say, was done under the aegis of justice and the intent was for all of creation to be judged according to its deservings. Only in chapter 2, when man becomes a vocal part of the world does the notion of mercy become introduced through the use of the 4 letter name. Man, it seems, needs a merciful God for if man is judged strictly according to his actions, he will always be found wanting. And the name "needs" (if we can say such a thing about God or a name) man's proper intentions and study for it to become fully part of this world. God's mercy only has a place because man needs it (in the same way that it wasn't called for until man was created), and the mercy-name only has power if man says it properly at the proper time.
The word "elohim," as described by the Ramban, does much more than just point to justice. It denotes power. The word means "Master of all forces." Using the word then is a recognition of God's might, and creation is an exercise of power. God wills the world into existence and it comes into existence. God the all-powerful can make anything so we use a word which points to that strength. In fact, the text often uses the word to call forth other claimants to power. It is used to refer to a judge when applied to Moses, the one who has power over all of Egypt, including Pharaoh. It is used to refer to idols and other things placed as gods which man confuses for the one God because he misattributes the power to a pawn. Man might worship the sun because the sun brings the heat and light and life to plants in the day -- but Abraham sees past that and understands that the sun is not the source of that power, God is. So the word often is used when people misunderstand how power operates and label something as the divine because they are stuck on one level of perception, that of simple strength.
But man must move beyond that one characteristic of God if wants to know the one God. So God gives us a name to use which adds not power but God's relationship to man, something which a false God like the sun cannot have, into the mix. The 4 letter name only has value when it is pronounced properly. Pronunciation is an area unique to mankind. Man can call the idea into existence through recognizing the divine correctly! Anyone can say the word "elohim" and mean any number of different things by it, but the 4 letter name is special in that it is only and can only be a name of God. It points to mercy because it points to the possibility of a connection between man and God, if man is able to "read God's name properly" (which would include our use of the replacement word "ado-shem" which shows that we are appealing to the merciful one but don't want to pronounce the special name either incorrectly or when we are not empowered to appeal on that level). We have to call to him in his name, which we cannot do unless we study and connect and learn about this name.
The name is given to man so that he has access not to a nebulous notion of power, but to a God who listens and cares. In our blessing we say "blessed are you, 4 letter name" at the start -- our prayer has to recognize that a powerful and just God would not be swayed by human prayer -- if the person deserves punishment, then so be it. We appeal to the mercy-name and say "you gave me this name to use and I'm trying to use it properly." Only then do we, in some blessings, say that the same merciful God figure is also the powerful one who rules the whole world. And on Yom Kippur, back in temple days, the high priest would say the 4 letter word explicitly when asking for forgiveness. He would invoke the precise name to make that connection to God even more explicit.
The 4 letter name is therefore a representative of the facet, a sign of God's mercy and the method that the mercy works through. It is both the signifier and the signified, calling the merciful one and being the medium through which mercy can be delivered.
When we pray during this high holiday season, we should pay careful attention to the names of God we invoke and recognize the amount of mercy being afforded us simply by our having access to this particular name. I wish for everyone to see the presence of mercy which leads to availability for repentance and the hope for atonement.
Happy new year!