This week's portion: the Face of God
70 faces at Yale on December 5

On names and naming

I offered this d'var Torah this morning at the Episcopal church in town. My thanks are due to the rector, an old friend, who invited me to preach about names and naming in Jewish tradition.



There are names that we choose, and names we are given. In the Jewish lectionary cycle, we read yesterday from a Torah portion which contains two important namings.

First, the renaming of Jacob. Jacob is on his way to meet his brother Esau for the first time in years, and he's afraid. The night before their meeting, he sends his family on ahead, and he encounters a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night.

Anytime an unnamed messenger appears in Torah, he's understood to be an angel, a messenger of the divine. As dawn approaches, the angel demands to be released, but Jacob refuses to let him go without a blessing. So the stranger offers him the blessing of a new name: henceforth he will be called Israel, one who wrestles with God.

A few chapters later God appears to him directly, and God reiterates the new name. "You who were named Jacob will now be called Israel," God says. In Torah, God too has many names; this time, God says "I am El Shaddai," a name which can be read as having something to do with fertility and compassion and motherliness (shadayim are breasts.)

That's one naming. The other naming comes as the matriarch Rachel is dying in childbirth. Her last act in life is to name her second son Ben-oni, "son of my sorrow." But, the text tells us, Israel names the boy instead Benjamin, "son of my right hand." A name which connotes strength and connection, rather than sorrow.

Naming is a theme throughout the book of Genesis. At the very beginning of our story the adam, the earthling, gives names to all the animals, and whatever he calls them, that's what they truly are. The act of naming is an act of bringing order to the world.

The Chaldean man Avram receives a new name when he is circumcised as a sign of covenant with God. God adds the letter ה to his name, along with the promise that he will be the father of nations; no longer merely Avram, he becomes Avraham. That letter ה, taken alone, is shorthand for God's own name. By entering into covenant with God, Avraham gains something of God within his name, within himself. Names, in Torah, aren't merely labels. They say something about who we are and what we're meant to be.

In our own day, too, the names we give to our children say something about who we hope they will become. Sefardic Jews name after the living, to honor them; Ashkenazic Jews name after someone who has died, so that their name lives on. Our sages say that a cosmic spiritual connection is forged between the soul of the person who held the name previously, and the person who receives it now.

What hopes and wishes are encoded in the name each parent chooses to give to their child? What memories are enshrined?

The giving of a name is a moment pregnant with holy possibility. For millennia, Jewish boys have received their names as part of brit milah, the covenant on the 8th day which is symbolized by circumcision. And Jewish girls have received their names in synagogue, as part of the public reading of Torah. In the last 50 years, naming and welcoming ceremonies have become more elaborate and more personal for children of all genders.

We want to formally welcome all of our children into the world and into our community. We want to give them names which hold meaning for us -- names which say something about our hopes for who they will become.

And we give our children names knowing that their names may change. Like our Biblical ancestors, we may adjust our names at moments of spiritual importance in our lives -- like Avram who became Avraham, or Jacob who became Israel. Our children may choose their own names, later in life.

The poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, widely known simply as Zelda, wrote:

לכל איש יש שם...

Each of us has a name
given us by God
and given us by our parents.

Each of us has a name
given us by our measure and our smile
and given us by our clothes.

Each of us has a name
given us by the mountains
and given us by our walls...

She may be riffing on the midrash (Kohelet Rabba) which says that

A person has three names:
one that he is called by his father and mother;
one that people know him by,
and one that he acquires for himself.

Each of us has the name our parents call us, the name of infancy and childhood, the name of our origins. Each of us has the name we're known by in the public world: maybe a nickname, maybe a title, maybe different names in different spheres of our lives. And each of us has the name we spend our lives acquiring. Talmud teaches that at the beginning of life we receive our given names, and at the end of life a "good name" is all we take with us.

We can't know what names our children will acquire for themselves, but we can hope that their names will be names of kindness. Names of connection and rootedness. Names of generosity, and compassion, and love.