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Becoming Avraham: on names and transformation in Lech-Lecha

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous."

Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, "As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. (Genesis 17:1-5; parashat Lech Lecha.)

AvrahamMany years ago, a dear friend set out to read the Bible because she felt -- I think rightly -- that it had had a tremendous influence on English-language literature. She chose the King James version, both because she felt it had had the most impact on English lit and because she doesn't speak Hebrew. As she began to work her way through Genesis, and came to this passage, she asked me: what's this name change about? What does it mean?

Most simply, the change from Avram to Avraham involves the addition of one letter: ה, the "h" sound. (We pronounce the name of this letter as heh or hei.) Sarai's name is also changed this week, in a similar way: the י at the end of the name Sarai is changed to the ה at the end of Sarah.

The letter ה is one of our ways of denoting God. ה' means HaShem, "The Name," e.g. the Holy One of Blessing. Some sources in our tradition read the added ה as a symbol of God's presence. Avram becomes Avraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; in both cases, the added letter signifies God. Other sources relate the letter ה to breath (certainly that is how the letter sounds when vocalized), and -- remembering that God breathed the breath of life into the first human only a few weeks ago in our narrative -- see the added ה as a sign of divine spirit.

A change in name can signal a change in destiny. Avraham and Sarah aren't the only ones in Torah to receive new names from God; later in our story we'll encounter Jacob, "the Heel" (his name comes from the word for heel, as he grabbed his twin brother's heel in the womb to ensure that he himself would be born first -- and sure enough, Jacob is kind of a heel as the English colloquial usage would have it!) who wrestles with an angel and becomes Yisrael, "Wrestles-With-God."

An interesting note: the Torah tells us that God said to Avram "Your name shall be Avraham," but of Sarai God says "her name is Sarah." Not "shall be," but already is. We read in Talmud:

Rabbi Huna said, quoting Rabbi Acha: The letter yud which was removed from Sarai's name was divided into two letters; one hei was added to Abram and the other to Sarah." (Talmud Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 2:6)

Remember that in Hebrew, numbers and letters are the same thing. The letter י equals the number 10; the letter ה equals the number 5. According to this reading, the 10 in Sarai's name was removed and broken into two 5s, two הs; one ה was attached to each name. In this reading, it was Sarai's deep spirituality which was divided and shared between the two of them -- or perhaps her spirituality which made it possible for both of them to experience this added gift of spirit and awareness.

The Zohar offers a different interpretation. Zohar teaches that the ה -- meaning 5 -- represents the 5 books of Moses, e.g. the Torah. As a prooftext, the Zohar offers a creative re-reading of Genesis 2:4:

"These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created [in Hebrew, "beheibaram"] in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens." He made them with [the letter] hei /ה.

The Zohar deconstructs the word "beheibaram" ("when they were created") into b' (which means "with") hei ("the letter ה") baram ("they were created.") The simple surface meaning of "when they were created" is re-interpreted into "The heavens and the earth were created with ה." Remember that the letter ה, which can also mean 5, represents Torah -- so this teaches us that (in the Zohar's opinion) the whole of creation was created by means of the Torah. That's what Avram and Sarai inherited at this moment of blessing and name change: they inherited Torah, which in a deep mystical sense is the blueprint for all of creation.

Jewish tradition places deep importance on names. There's an old saying that when parents name our children, we experience a  frisson of prophecy, since in giving a child a name we create some of that child's destiny. And you've probably heard of (and perhaps even experienced) the old custom of changing someone's name if they are very ill. The folk tradition says it's to fool the Angel of Death, but I think it also has to do with a deep and inchoate sense that when someone's name changes, new possibilities are opened up. (I have many friends in Jewish Renewal who have changed their names, or taken on second Hebrew names, at moments of great personal transformation in their lives for this reason.)

It's worth noting that in the passage I quoted at the start of this d'var Torah, God introduces God's-self as El Shaddai. (Remember that God has many names in Jewish tradition -- even just in the Torah itself.) This name can be understood to be related to the Hebrew root which means breasts, so it can be read as a name of divine mothering and compassion. Can we imagine that in the ה which our ancestors received here was some of that motherly compassion and kindness?

At the start of this week's portion, God commands Avram "Lech-lecha" -- go you forth, or as many of us translate it, go forth into yourself. Maybe it's only once Avram has gone forth into himself -- once he has done the inner work of self-discovery and discernment -- that he becomes ready to receive the changed name which implies a deeper awareness of God's presence, a deeper connection to spirit and soul, a deeper connection to motherly kindness and compassion, a deeper connection to Torah... which he can then pass down to all of us. Kein yehi ratzon, may it be so!

Previous years' commentaries on Lech-Lecha: