Each of Us Has a Name: Shabbat Shuvah 5773
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It turns out that Juliet was wrong. There’s a lot in a name. A name can tell you so much- about who a person is, where he or she came from, and perhaps even where he or she is going. As Rabbi Shimon in Pirkei Avot teaches, “There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. And the crown of a good name is superior to them all.” In other words, whether you are learned or jewishly involved or a powerful person, you still have a reputation and a name which will follow you throughout your life and even after. Names are important. They define who we are and tell others a great deal about our place in the world.
Our ancestors in the Torah had names whose meanings defined them. Adam means “man” and is also closely related to the word dam, blood, and adama, ground. So the first human being is named after our humble roots- we are made of flesh and blood and one day, we return to the earth. Eve, or Chava in Hebrew, is linked to the word chai which means life. She is the mother of all of us, the life giver. Abraham’s name means “father of many” and considering Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all define him as their progenitor, we understand why this is. Isaac’s name means laughter, for Sarah laughed when she was told she would bear a son in her old age. Jacob’s name is related to the word heel because he is born clinging to the heel of his twin brother, and later in life his named is changed to Israel, one who wrestles because this is exactly what he does with a strange being all night. And Joseph’s name means to add- he is a welcome addition to Jacob’s family and Rachel’s first child, adding joy and fulfillment to her life.
Thousands of years later, names still carry a great deal of meaning. A recent survey by the news program 20/20 found that resumes with “black” sounding names were less likely to be downloaded and read than identical resumes with “white” sounding names. And in the wake of 9/11, many Arab Americans anglicized their names. Tariq Hasan became Terry. Isam Abu Zaid changed his name to Sam Paul St. Germain. And four years ago, much was made of our president’s middle name, Hussein. Some tried to emphasize this, and others tried to downplay it. In the Jewish world, I recently witnessed an email debate on a list serve over whether synagogues should look for Jewish sounding last names in local phone books and directories to try and find new members.
Each name has a story, and one of the reasons I love brisim and baby namings is because I get to hear wonderful stories of names and who the baby is named after. It is an ashkenazic custom to name new babies after relatives who are gone who we wish to honor. By the way, did you know that Sephardic jews often name their babies after relatives who are still alive? Since my family comes from ashkenazic eastern European stock, I am named after my great grandfather Nathan. Nathan is my middle name, and Natan Adam is my Hebrew name. I told you a bit about Nathan a few months ago. He’s the person who met my great grandmother Esther at a Purim party. She was wearing an outfit covered in spoons and he asked to spoon with her. Anyway, Nathan was a smart man, a good man, and a hardworking man. During the depression, he sold apples on the street to survive. And he loved my great grandmother Esther very much. I enjoy hearing stories about him from my mother and grandmother, and I try my best to live up to his legacy and his name.
This evening, in a little bit, we will make our way outside to dedicate our memorial plaques. Inscribed upon them are the names of our loved ones we have loved and lost. We remember their lives. We mourn their loss. And we say their names before kaddish to sanctify the memory of their lives. I would like to share a poem by the Israeli poet Zelda. Her full name was Zelda Schneerson Mishkovsky. What a name she carried! She was a descendant of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek. She worked as a schoolteacher in Jerusalem. One of her students was Amos Oz, who years later visited her and told her that he used to have a schoolboy crush on her. Zelda died in 1984, but her poetry remains popular in Israel and in literary circles. One of her most well known works is L’kol ish yesh shem, each of us has a name:
On this Shabbat, in the midst of the Days of Awe, let us take time to remember all the names of those who are no longer with us. Names we cherished. Names which live on in ours. As we enter a New Year without them, let us resolve to keep their stories alive. Each of us has a name. May these names bring us comfort. May these names bring us strength. Zichronam livracha. May their memories and their names be a blessing.