Lechol ish yesh shem
shenatan lo elohim
venatnu lo aviv ve’imo.
Every person has a name
which God gave him
and which his father and mother gave him
(by Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984))
For all of us, our name is an important and delicate gift, we got from our parents. Not only does a name contribute to our identity, it also reflect religious, spiritual, traditional, and emotional dimensions, our parents had in mind, while choosing our name. It is possibly one of the most personal things about us, and yet we don’t choose it ourselves, regularly. To be honest, I think, we all do not often spend much time to reflect on it. We got the name from our parents, and we just “need to live” with it.
There are, of course, moments in our lives, when we may consciously reflect on our names, and actually consider changing them. At our wedding for example, when we have to decide on what our family name should be. Maybe we may choose to change our names also because another name seems to suit us better, or sometimes because we want to distance ourselves from the context within which we were named. Many Jewish families anglicised their names, for example when they left Germany or Eastern Europe. And usually Jews-by-Choice pick a Hebrew name while entering the covenant with God and the Jewish people.
There may be instances, where we are actually forced to think about our names, for example, when we want to join Facebook, or when we try to obtain a new Email address, as soon as we find out that our name is already taken by someone else. We have than to think about a different name for Facebook, which will help others to find us, and in the same way will represent us in a way, we want to be perceived.
In our parashah we can see how in biblical times, and for many thousands years, names had been used, and how important the right name was for the individual, and the one’s who chose them.
The Torah portrays the act of giving names to creatures as the first independent human act; it is Adam who names the animals of the earth (Genesis 2:20). Our Scripture also emphasises on the importance of names in drawing our attention to name changes. In this week’s Torah portion, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude of nations”, and Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah, meaning “princess”. These new names recognise the roles that Sarah and Abraham are to have in the Torah and in our tradition, and they symbolise a change in the status for both Abraham and Sarah.
Sarai’s change of name is a sign for her transition from a woman who has been unable to bear a child, to actually becoming a mother. For many women for whom motherhood has been desired but unattainable, the significance of this change cannot be underestimated. In the story of the Jewish people, Sarah becomes – after Isaac’s birth – the happy, laughing “mother of a multitude of nations”, enabling her to play an equal part in our history.
In Genesis, God – to whom we often in our liturgy refer as our Father – is the main name giver, and the naming of somebody is a sacred act so that one’s name may speak of identity, tradition, commitment and membership of the Jewish people. Naming a Jewish child, therefore, can be an important way of underlining our Jewish heritage, connecting us with every generation before us and the generations who will come after us.
Names in Judaism are one of the most personal attributions a person can have, even after her or his death. By remembering a person’s name, we keep him or her alive in our memories. Names are an integral part of our make-up, physically as well as spiritually. It has an impact on our identity, and the way people look at us. They are as important as our face in our passport.
Our Torah portion reminds us of the immense value of our names we got, but a teaching of the Pirke Avot (4:17), adds to this that “there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name exceeds them all”.
Even though our names are usually a gift we received from our parents, it is still on us, to make this name a good one.
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