Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's in a name? / Parshat Shemot

We Jews don’t have a storied history of naming books creatively, which is surprising given how important we think names are. Most of our holy books are named by the first significant word in them. Hence the Hebrew name for Genesis is its first Hebrew word, “Beraishit.” This week we open to parshat Shemot, the first Torah portion in the Book of Exodus, which is also called Shemot (same creative system for naming).

“Shemot” means names. Exodus begins by recounting the names of the sons of Jacob who came down to Egypt to live there under the protection of their brother, Joseph, who saved Egypt from famine. Names are inordinately important in Jewish tradition. Torah pays particular care to names. Avram’s name is changed to Avraham when he enters a covenant with God; Sarai becomes Sarah at that time. Each of Jacob’s sons is a given a name that has significance for the circumstances of his birth. The angel Jacob wrestles with bestows a new name on him that we all bear: Israel, “one who strives with God.”

Parents name their children with great care. Names carry so much of the individual’s identity: history and hopes. Those of us who named our children for deceased relatives embed in their identities family history. Names also convey hopes for the child: that he or she will embody the finest attributes of the person he or she is named for, whether a relative, a Biblical personage, or someone else. Or perhaps that the child will grow to embody the meaning of a specially chosen name.

One’s name is also one’s reputation – who we are and how we are seen in the world. Each of us has many names, the many names by which others know us. We have a different name (image, resonance, meaning) to all the different people with whom we interact. How do they see us? Who do they know us to be? Who does God know us to be? Do our names convey the names Integrity, Honesty, and Compassion? Do others look at us and think: here comes Humor, Sensitivity, Caring? Could we have a more precious possession than our names?

The Hebrew poet Zelda wrote about the many names we come to own as we go through life:
Each of Us Has a Name

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

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

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

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.
May your name shine among the stars in heaven, among humans on earth, and in the hearts of those who love you. Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

(Note: You can find the original Hebrew poem at http://israel.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=3275. This translation is by Marcia Lee Falk. Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky was born June 20, 1914 in the Ukraine. Her father was the great-great grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the third Lubavitch Rebbe. She made aliyah in the early 1930s, living in Tel Aviv and Haifa before moving to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem she taught school; Amos Oz was one of her pupils. Her poems draw on images from Jewish mysticism, Hasidism, and Tanakh. She won the prestigious Bialik prize in 1977. Zelda died April 30, 1984.)

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