The Genesis:3 Project
May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. Genesis 28:3
When our kids were little our extended family would spend a week or so each summer in Bethany Beach, Delaware. (We have since relocated the vacation to Rehoboth Beach.) The family friendly town has a main street that extends from the ocean to the state highway, and each summer we would explore the old favorites and the new businesses that populated the commercial district.
Of course, there was candy, sunscreen, popcorn, boogie boards, ice cream and beer in most of the same locations each season. But one summer, a Christian book store made a valiant attempt to turn a profit half a block from the beach. I did not do a scientific survey, but I did try to notice if anyone was reading the “Left Behind” series on the sand. Few enough people chose righteous fiction over trash that the store was not there the next summer.
But I did make a purchase in the store. I bought three baseball caps emblazoned with the words “El Shaddai – God Almighty.” At the time, there were three rabbis in our congregation and I figured we could have a gang: the El Shaddais. Somewhere in my closet is that hat, though I do not know if the other two survived moves to Massachusetts and California. The gang never materialized.
In fact, I doubt I wore the hat much. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a little blasphemous. It is a funny word to come out of me; my sense of humor borders frequently on the inappropriate. I doubt that the proprietors of the store considered the hat to be a joke, even if the logo put the cap in the same category as sports teams, rock stars and even politicians. Wearing a Cubs cap doesn’t make me a member of the team (if only…), but somehow walking around with one of the names of God on my head seemed both presumptuous and disrespectful.
Thinking about it now, I was simply drawing me line in the sand (on the beach?) in a different place. Like much of America, I have become accustomed to vulgarities referencing sexual intimacy and fecal matter and five other words that made George Carlin famous. If George were alive today, he would hear them spoken on television (at least cable). While I applaud the freedom of expression that removes some of the shock from this neighborhood of vocabulary, the familiarization coarse language actually diminishes our ability to express true outrage (in my opinion).
And so the same thing must apply to the opposite end of the spectrum. Though some folks consider prudish the substitution of "gosh" or even "golly" for "god" in exclamations of alarm or surprise, others who try hard to observe literally the mandate of the third commandment remain disheartened by the trivialization of the last letter in "OMG." We are less able to express awe and reverence when our vocabulary for those genuine feelings has been co-opted by Kardashians and presidential tweets.
I am not the right person to offer you instruction in purity of language. But I do want to encourage you to try to recapture the power of both epithet and sacred terms. In many ways, like our current political state of affairs, when people flee to the margins, there is very little sense of boundaries. When "phooey" and "shoot" are considered too juvenile to be serviceable, "goodness" and "gol' durn it" no longer protect the invocation of the divine, even inside the precincts of a house of worship.
Isaac invoked a name of God previously unknown to Jacob's generation. Its origin is the subject of some debate – is El Shaddai meant to convey a sense of nurture or is it a slight mispronunciation of the term meaning "God of the fields?" Its special use added to the blessing this father wanted to convey to his son: prosperity, family, legacy. He rested this name on Jacob's head with reverence and love.
But not as a logo on a baseball cap.