When I was a little girl, my full name, Rachael, was never used. My family always called me a shortened version of my name, and when I was an adolescent, I decided to spell the shorter version in an interesting and unique way, so my adolescent identity could think I was cool. I ended the spelling with an ‘i’ which (I have to admit) for a (thank God) brief time, I dotted with a heart. Then I matured and dotted it with a happy face. Then I graduated Junior High and just dotted the ‘i’ with a dot. And now you know a seemingly useless (and humbling) detail about me being cool in middle school.
But, it doesn’t end there. Throughout my undergraduate years, many of my friends knew people who knew me when I was growing up and so the shortened form of my name followed me. I found it jarring sometimes, because my ears would hear that short form and prepare me to see a familiar face of family or friends. Instead, more and more, I was seeing people I barely knew using a personal nickname my family used. In my graduating year, one of my professors asked me why everyone calls me by a child’s name when the name ‘Rachael’ is so beautiful.
From then on, I became involved in who would call me ‘Rachael’ and who would call me by my more personal, more familiar name.
And then I got married. My husband is Russian and I was introduced into the world of patronymics. As an English speaker, I was shocked to see that Russian names don’t always have enough vowels between the consonants (I would stare at the written names, but my mouth just wouldn’t even try to pronounce ‘zdvkst’ no matter how long my eyes looked at it). If you read a Russian novel, you don’t have to pronounce those names, but when it’s your in-laws…well, I think we can all see the problem. But, pronouncing the name is only one layer of the challenge. My husband, and everyone else from Russia, has a patronym: a name derived from his father’s first name with an add-on at the end. I read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” when I was pretty young and I remember not understanding how many main characters had killed a pawnbroker, because the character’s name kept switching to the patronymic form or to the diminutive endearment form.
Speaking of which, my husband’s name is only 5 letters long, but his Russian diminutive nickname of endearment is 9 letters long, because it will change and then add ‘ushkah’ at the end. We have been married for over 30 years and he still insists that’s a diminutive version of his name. I keep saying it’s an endearment, but it can’t be a diminutive if it’s actually longer than the original name. He keeps insisting I’m wrong… (between you and me, I don’t think ‘diminutive’ means the same thing in Russian).
As time went on, we named our children. One of our daughters is named ‘Chava’. When she was a baby, her brother’s friends would serenade her by singing ‘Hava Nagilah’. I didn’t have the heart to tell their sweet faces that her name isn’t ‘Hava’. For a while, other of their kindergarten friends asked why the baby was named after bread (challah). Years later, her niece began calling her ‘Huga’ and it stuck because it has the word ‘hug’ in it. Now we can call her ‘Huga’ and it’s a sweet moment, but we would all be taken aback if anyone outside the family were to call her that. We would feel they were taking liberties.
And, the real question is, why am I explaining all of this?
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat VaYikrah begins the third book of the Torah. The Hebrew word ‘vayikrah’ means ‘and he called’. In this case, it is God calling to Moses. While we are all reading this, anxious to hear why God is calling to Moses, the Midrash is more concerned with why God is calling him ‘Moses’ at all. Why that name?
The Sages tell us that Moses has 10 names which they then list with prooftexts. The one his biological mother gave him is ‘Tuvyah’ which means God is good. It’s a lovely name, but no one will ever call him that. The name ‘Moses’ was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter, herself nameless in the Torah.
The Midrash that tells us all this also gives Pharaoh’s daughter a name: Batya, which means daughter of God. The reason God chooses that name for her is because God said to her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son. You are not My daughter, but I will call you My daughter.” We know that names reflect our essence and so God has said to her that the kindness you have shown to someone so foreign to you is reflected in your essence and now embodied in your name.
And why does God always call Moses with the name she gave him? The Sages explain that while all Jews are born into a home where they are taught about God and Divine discourse, Pharaoh’s daughter was not. She had to seek, find and ultimately choose to affirm the things that Torah affirms – to secure life. The Midrash says that God explains: ‘because she chose Me, I choose to use the name she chose’. To God, he will always be Moses.
And so, in these challenging global times, as illness has spread, quite literally, blowing in the wind, the names we use are crucial.
World leaders have named this challenge “a time of war”. We are ‘engaged in a battle’ and we therefore now think of our homes as our bunkers. We understand why leaders might choose those names and that language. They must quickly find a way to get millions of people to change their behaviours and so the names and the language heads to the extreme. But, that does not mean we must choose to use those names in our homes or in our conversations. Rather than calling it ‘war’, perhaps we call it ‘security’.
God rewarded Batya with her name because she sought a way to secure life. We honour both her and God by still calling the baby she saved ‘Moses’. We learn that life is to be secured regardless of age, gender, nationality or faith.
So, this Shabbat our tables may have less seats around them, as members of our family stay safely in their homes. We thank everyone who is staying home for securing themselves and securing us, as our minds are somewhat eased because we know they are staying safe.
To me, Pharaoh’s daughter holds a special place for teaching us such a bold and relevant message. She has influenced me personally. Her actions and God’s responses open new ways to frame what is happening around us and to enter Shabbat with a feeling of calm and security.
If she were here, I would invite her to call me ‘Rachi’. For her, I would even dot it with a heart.