THE BLOG
01/13/2015 07:48 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

A Million People in Paris Teach Us What Religion Is Really All About

A million people marched in Paris this week. A million men, women and children, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, and those with no religious label at all, marching simply to demonstrate their ultimate humanity that crosses religious distinctions and definitions and unites all human beings through the transcendent qualities of compassion, kindness and hope. It just might have been a watershed moment in modern European history, where the evil intention of a few united the best in the human spirit in the many.

In the most important sense it wasn't merely a "protest" against the violence and small-minded religious fanaticism that so many fear is sweeping across Europe with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that demands Sharia law be imposed in one neighborhood after another, and spits in the face of the most fundamental Western values that have formed our post-enlightenment world.

It was instead a celebration of what is right about the world. It was an outpouring of goodness, love, solidarity, and simple human caring that refuses to be cowed and beaten down by the evil ugliness of narrow-minded religious fanatics of any persuasion. It was men, women and children of all colors and religions proudly declaring in the bright Paris sunlight for all to see what Jewish civilization has always taught at its essence -- that there is more that unites us than divides us as human beings and that our spiritual tradition insists that ALL human beings are created in the image of God regardless of their race or language or religion.

All day I kept thinking about that infamous quotation from George Santayana that has become almost a cliché of modern consciousness, that, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," as friends over and over again reminded me that more than half a century ago the Nazis came to power in Germany and almost destroyed the entire world only after "Hitler was elected." Indeed it doesn't take a military coup or a violent revolution for evil to triumph, it merely takes turning the other way, ignoring the signs even when they stare you in the face. I heard Elie Wiesel speak to a group once, who asked him what was the most important lesson to be learned from the holocaust, and he replied, "It's simple -- when someone says they intend to kill you, believe them!"

Today we stand at the same crossroads of a potential clash of civilizations and our future just might rest on how clearly we remember Wiesel's holocaust lesson. It was beautiful and inspiring to watch that gathering in Paris, a sea of humanity representing the best of us, our noble aspirations, and our hope and faith that the human spirit can still triumph over evil as we always have in the past and that a small number of ignorant, hateful individuals can never win out over the vast sea of good that represents the everyday miracles of human love, kindness and compassion.

In this week's Torah portion God reveals something special to Moses -- God's intimate, personal, private name. And in an ancient world where names themselves contained the very essence of the power of the one named, this revelation was God's way in Jewish tradition of telling Moses that he had a special, unique role to play in the liberation of his people. The portion begins, "God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am ADONAI (yud, hay, vav, hay in Hebrew). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as EL SHADDAI, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ADONAI." (Exodus 6:2,3)

In Jewish mystical literature we are taught, "There are seventy names for God." And indeed, throughout the Torah, Talmud, Midrash and all Jewish literature God is referred to by almost more names than can be counted. Why so many names, and why does God tell Moses that the name he knows God by is different from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? In fact, this very name that God claims wasn't known to the patriarchs, was very familiar to them at every stage of the Biblical story. The reality is that ADONAI -- yud, hay, vav, hay, is the most popular form of God's name in the entire Bible. It appears no less than 6,823 times! So why would God claim that it wasn't the name he used with the patriarchs?

The answer lies in the very power of names themselves, in our personal understanding of what it means to be holy and in recognizing that in truth, each of us is challenged in life to find our own private names for God as well. For the real meaning of God's names derives from the context in which those names are used, and the qualities and attributes of holiness that they symbolize.

The Midrash on this week's portion explains this in traditional rabbinic language. "Rabbi Aba bar Memel said, 'God said to Moses, "You want to know my name? I am known according to my deeds. Sometimes I am known as EL SHADDAI (God of Nurturing), sometimes as TZEVAOT (God of Armies), sometimes as ELOHIM (God of Judgment), sometimes as ADONAI (God of Compassion). When I judge creation I am called ELOHIM. When I make war against evil I am called TZEVAOT. And when I forgive the transgression of human beings I am called EL SHADDAI. And when I show compassion on my world I am called ADONAI, for any time I am called ADONAI, you will find the quality of compassion. You see, you can know me and my name according to my deeds."

That is why the sages of Jewish tradition teach that there are seventy names for God. Every name reflects a quality in relation to human beings that each of us can choose to emulate in our own lives. Thus in Jewish mysticism, the ideal state is to be in harmony with the Divine by emulating the attributes reflected in the great diversity of divine names.

Watching that million-person gathering for good in Paris evoked in me this very idea that every one of us carries our own divine sacred name out into the world as well. For good to triumph in Europe and throughout the world, each of us must carry our own sacred divine name with us into the fight -- As God is called, The Compassionate One (HARAKHAMAN in Hebrew), so each of us can strive to be compassionate in our behavior toward others. As God is called EL SHADDAI (The Nurturer), so we can be nurturing of the dreams and longings of others. As God is called The Righteous Judge (DAYAN EMET), so we can express righteousness and stand up for justice in our lives and our communities.

The leadership of Abraham, the lessons of Isaac, the challenges of Jacob all required different role models of holiness than the demands upon Moses to be the liberator and then giver of the Torah and establisher of an entire Biblical civilization. Perhaps we too, like Moses stand on the threshold of a new spiritual challenge -- to once again bring the enduring values of love, compassion, caring, unity, holiness and kindness to the forefront of what it means to be not only "religious" in the 21st century, but in the end simply human as well.