WHAT'S IN A NAME?
It happens too often these days that when a member of the Jewish community passes away, and its time to arrange their funeral, a question is posed by the rabbi or cantor which no one can answer.
That question is, "What was their Hebrew name?"
The English part is easy. As Americans, we received a name at birth which follows us through life. It's a lot easier to navigate this modern world with a name like Rob, Roxy or Vance, rather than Beryl, Rochel or Velvel.
And this is nothing new. The great Maccabean leader who served as Judean king during a period which followed the Chanukah story was known by the Greek name of John Hyrcanus.
It's just a lot easier to meld into contemporary culture when we use familiar names.
Yet, increasingly and ultimately within American culture, it is that secular name which defines us. Often, in Jewish terms, it is difficult to remember who we are.
The Kabbalists (ancient mystics) offered a teaching on this matter. They note that the word for "soul, "Neshama," contains at its core the word "Shem" which means "name."
That is to say that a bit of the soul of a treasured grandparent, uncle, aunt or other ancestor or friend, is passed to us within the name we inherit. So Jewish tradition tells us, that it is important who you are named after, and whose memory you honor in your life.
My English name is Irwin. But that is not my name. My name, and perhaps the name someone will carry on is Yisrael (Israel). I am named after my great grandfather, of blessed memory. It was expected within our family that the first born of "Zaidie Yisrael's" grandchildren would be named after this wise, sensitive and scholarly person.
It is perhaps significant that two of his namesakes have become rabbis.
Indeed, Judaism regards a name to be central to whom we are, and to whom we carry on. The Kabbalists also tell us that within each name, there is a unique vibration which defines us.
The issue of names is germane to this week's Torah portion, as we begin reading the second book of the Torah. In English, we know it as the Book of Exodus. But in Hebrew, Exodus is titled Shmot, "names." It begins with the words "These are the names of the sons of Israel." (Exodus 1:1)
What do names say about us?
As we will read in future weeks, the Children of Israel will be enslaved by the Egyptians, and will ultimately win their freedom.
There is a question posed in ancient rabbinic literature regarding how the Israelites maintained their identity in spite of spending more than four hundred years in Egypt? Why weren't they swallowed by the dominant culture?
The Midrash, our collection of ancient legends and exegetical teachings, tells us the Israelites did not fold into Egyptian culture because, "they did not change their names or their language, nor did they didn't engage in gossip and they maintained their sexual morality."
Midrash adds that during their centuries in Egypt, "Reuben did not become Rufus, Judah not Julian, Joseph Justin, not did Benjamin become Alexander."
It's all in the name. And it is still a big deal.
It is true that in 2013, use of many traditional Jewish names is fading. Increasingly, many contemporary Jews are rejecting formal Jewish practices and customs, searching instead for new meanings which they consider more intuitive.
But perhaps it's time to pause from our modernistic pursuit, and look over our shoulder towards tradition.
For much of our own values and our family history are linked to our Hebrew name that we were blessed with at birth. And for those who were never given a Hebrew name, during the next few weeks, as we navigate through the Book of Shmot, perhaps it's a time to consider finding that unique Hebrew name which speaks to us.
Is there someone in our past who helped shape us? Who were our mentors? Whose memory would we like to keep alive through our name, or through the name of a future child or grandchild?
This week's Torah reading prompts us to look at our old Ketubot (Jewish marriage licenses) sitting in a box somewhere and refresh our connection with our Jewish names and those of our parents.
Within Orthodox tradition our name is linked by the word bar or bat ("son" or "daughter of") our father. Within Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal tradition, we add the name of our mother.
My basic Jewish name is "Israel the son of Yehudah Leib and Charna," and I am proud of that name because it links me with two different family lines equally rich in insight and tradition.
For as Jews, we will not survive fully if we are only "Rufus" or "Alexander." And though these names tend not to come up outside of life cycle events or religious services, we carry their power and vibration all the days of our lives.
All the more important that this week, as we begin our "exodus," to pause and acknowledge the power of names.
Who were you named after? Take a moment, and find a remnant of that person in you, or perhaps create a new porthole into the future.
And so it is with the power of a Shem Tov, a good name.
Who are we?
And through our names, what and whom do we carry forward?
Shabbat Shalom, kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Yisrael Huberman