All of us play many different roles in life. For me it is wife, mother, rabbi, and academic, to name a few. Each of our roles allows others to see different parts of who we are, but they cannot capture not our complex whole. These names identify us depending on the encounters and relationships we have with others—our names become connected with our character. Similarly, in antiquity, names shared the character and function of a god. The same is true of ADONAI. Over the next few months, I want to share with you a little of what I’ve gleaned from my quest to understand more deeply the character of God through his names.
Let’s begin with a common name for God, ADONAI. Take the last two words of the Shema: “Shema Israel, ADONAI Eloheinu, echad.” “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, is ADONAI alone” (Deut. 6:4). This well-known declaration states who God is–he alone is ADONAI and he alone is God. Although technically not a name of God, ADONAI Echad declares something about His character: that ADONAI, the God of Israel, alone is God; there is no other. This prayer, the Shema, holds an important place in Jewish liturgy and is traditionally proclaimed multiple times daily as well as at the end of life. Most often the Shema is understood as a declaration of monotheism, because the word “echad” usually means “one.” Due to the influence of Christian trinitarianism, discussion often focuses on whether “echad” is a simple or complex unity. Yet the Shema is so much more than a statement of monotheism; it is a way of life. To understand ADONAI Echad as a way of life, we need to look at the context of the Shema in Deuteronomy and then ADONAI Echad’s context within the Shema itself.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moshe passionately pleads with the Israelites to obey the commandments, statutes, and judgements of the covenant to ensure an enduring life in the land of Israel. After reiterating the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5-6), he expounds the first two commandments. “You shall not have other gods besides Me. Do not make for yourself a graven image—no image of what is in the heavens above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.” (Deut. 5:7, 8; cf. Ex. 20:3,4). It is in this context that ADONAI our God is ADONAI Echad. He alone is God, and only He is God; there is no other. Because there are no verbs in the Shema, other than the command to “shema” itself, the context in Deuteronomy allows for the understanding that ADONAI Echad refers to God’s uniqueness. When “echad” is understood as “alone/unique,” it describes a relationship with God rather than simply his nature.
“Shema” is one of the most important words in the Torah, yet it is one the most misunderstood words. One reason is because there is no singular English word to translate “shema.” It means to listen, to heed, to pay attention, to understand, to respond, and to obey. Notice that ADONAI does not command us simply to “obey” but to heed and do. In fact, there is no verb for “obey” in the Torah. Instead, some form of “shema” is used. Listening and speaking are forms of communication. ADONAI does not want blind obedience but rather an intimate relationship.
Every time we hear or say the declaration, “Shema Israel, ADONAI Eloheinu, echad,” let’s remember that He is calling us to a relationship with Him, the only and unique God. Heeding this call brings us into an intimate relationship with the ADONAI Echad, the unique God of Israel, and leads to knowing Messiah Yeshua in all His fullness.
This post was written by MJTI Academic Dean Rabbi Dr. Vered Hillel.