As part of my continuing mission to give the rabbi a break in the wake of his new daughter's arrival, I'm leading services the next two Shabbat mornings. This week's Torah portion is Bereshit. We're starting at the very beginning (which I'm given to understand is a very good place to start.) Because my shul operates on a triennial cycle, I don't get to read those familiar opening lines; instead, I'm reading Genesis 2:15 through 2:25.
I'm intrigued, naturally, by the fact that God brings the animals for naming to the earthling (a term which sounds wacky but actually isn't, given the wordplay between אדם/adam and אדמה/adamah /earth). God creates all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky ex nihilo, but when it comes time to name them God brings them to the "living creature," the earth-being. What's that about? A little later in the portion, when God creates another being out of the earthling's rib, it's the adam who names her, who says she will be called an אשה (isha, woman) because she was taken from an איש (ish, man). So clearly naming is a human, or earthly, gift. God can create, but it’s given to us to name.
As a writer, I love the possibilities inherent in this. Like Margaret Atwood says, A word after a word/ after a word is power. Imagine the creation of a tiny fluttering winged thing, breast irridescent, hovering in midair: did it know itself until it was named "hummingbird?" What we're called matters: just think for a moment of the term you use to describe your ethnicity or sexual orientation, and then think of a derogatory synonym, and see what a difference a word makes. From the very beginning, this story tells us, we were given the power to use language to shape our world.
In our stories, and sometimes in reality, names connect to essence. That's at the root of the Jewish custom of changing the name of a very-ill child, to fool the Angel of Death. That's why so many cultures have naming/welcoming ceremonies for their children. That's why it's significant when Abram changes his name to Abraham, or when your teenaged daughter comes home and says she wants to be called something else now, a name of her own choosing.
Regardless of one's perspective on the "truth" of the creation stories in Torah, these early verses tell us something important about how Judaism views our role in the world. The earthling's first real task is naming what God creates. In that way, the adam is God's partner in creation. When we pray baruch she'amar we praise God Who speaks the world into being; God's speech manifests as creation. But creation isn't finished until we add human speech to God's speech, making our own names for things, adding our voices to the world's song.