Parshat Vayetzei: The Crown of a Good Name
Recently, my nephew and his wife had a baby, and we are all looking forward to zooming together to find out the new baby’s name. Judaism is very sensitive about the names we give our children. In this part of the world, our babies will usually get an ‘inside name’, the Hebrew one, and an ‘outside name’, the English one. Often, they are not translations of each other or even referring to the same namesake. Sometimes the Hebrew name speaks of family ancestry and tradition, and the English name speaks of what the culture around us accepts as a name that blends. But in Judaism, names are essence…and so we agonize.
I am named after two of my great-grandmothers, both from my mother’s side –it was her turn to name. I know it was my mother’s turn to name the baby (me) because my older sister has names that come from my father’s side. My grandmother used to call me her ‘imaleh ketana’ (her little mother) and always follow it up by reminding me that I was named after her mother, so that made me her little mother. It’s beautiful now, it was confusing then. It prompted me to ask my grandmother about her mother and so it opened the door to learn more about my namesake. But my grandfather never told me about his life growing up, and so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask him about his mother (my middle name). She remains a mystery within my identity.
We learn from Genesis that every new creation was not completed until it was named. Adam names the animals (beginning humanity’s partnership with God in completing the creation vision). There’s a great midrash that asks how Adam knew to name the elephant ‘elephant’, he said he called it that because it looked like an elephant (oh to be a fly in the Garden when all this was going on…), and so we learn that our names complete our births. The names we are given will mold our essence and begin a dialogue with God about our destinies. That’s why we agonize.
If someone falls on hard times or is challenged with illness, one of the Jewish choices is to add a name that will bring strength and healing with it. In very extreme cases we could consider a name change, though we’d rather expand the dialogue and add a name than begin from scratch and change the name.
It is also traditional to name babies in memory of someone from the past. Usually, the baby would bear the name of an admired family member, or someone we dearly loved, or a Jewish leader we felt was unique. In part, this is to keep the memory of that person alive in this world since it will now be carried into the future by a new person. Also, we believe that since souls are eternal, the soul of the departed loved one will bond with the soul of the newborn, giving it insight and strength. By naming a baby this way, we believe we have created a blessing that will inform the essence of the baby throughout its life.
In fact, rabbis have commented on the fact that the numerological sum of the word ‘name’ in Hebrew (‘shem’) is the same as the numerological sum of the word ‘book’ (sefer). They both equal 340. In other words, every name is the beginning of a book to be written and edited and expanded on by it’s writer, the person who bears the name (now embodying those who bore that name in the past). In Kohelet Rabbah, we are told that every person bears three names: the one his parents give him, the one other people call him, and the one he creates for himself. Our book is created for us when we are born and is named for us when we are named. It becomes the story of the name we all create for ourselves.
As beautiful as all this sounds, it can also lead us to dark places. In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Vayetzei, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are building their family. The children who will head the tribes of Israel are born and named. Leah bears the first sons and names them Reuven, Shimon and Levi. She explains that the names mean: Reuven – God saw my pain, Shimon – God heard my affliction, and Levi – maybe now my husband will accompany me. I can’t imagine an outing with this young family to the park as Leah calls out: ‘God heard my pain’, go get your brother ‘God saw my affliction’, time to go home!
As the family grows, more and more brothers are added, whose names represent the problems of their parents. It is of no great surprise that these boys will grow up and plot to kill a despised brother, Joseph. Knowing their names, what else did we think they would do?
But, as the years passed, these boys, now men, wrote different ‘books’ of themselves. Each one stood before Joseph in Egypt as a distinct individual with a distinct voice. The tribes that come from them will likewise each develop its own culture and its own identity within Israel. We will become a people of diversity, rich with a past that strengthens us, and unwritten books to fill.
Mazel tov to Eric, Michelle, Adina and the whole family on the birth of their new baby – I can’t wait to hear her name.