Judaism: What's Your Name?
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
The translation of the title of the sidra is “Names”. The subject matter is the names of the Children of Israel who migrated to Egypt with Jacob and – despite themselves – inaugurated Jewish history. Using this as a springboard, this D’var Torah focuses on the word “Name”.
Every one of us is often asked, “What’s your name?” Sometimes the question is “Who are you?” Actually the two questions are not the same. “What’s your name?” denotes “By what name is your family known? What first name or names did your parents give you?” That’s a factual question: it says very little about who you are.
The rabbis note in the Midrash (Kohelet Rabba 7) that everyone has three names – one his parents give him, one is what people call him and the third he acquires himself. The first name is the technical mark of identity connoted by “What’s your name?” The second denotes one’s reputation – “He (or she) is such a sound thinker, such a generous person, such a good soul...” The third name sums you up qualitatively: “What’s your essential nature?”
Ahad HaAm wrote an essay about Moshe Rabbenu in which he asked, “Who was Moses?” It sounds like a foolish question since everyone can look Moses up in the Bible and biographical dictionaries. There’s no secret about who Moses was in that sense, but that’s not what Ahad HaAm was interested in. His question meant, “What was the essence of Moses?”
The answer is suggested by the third name spoken of in the Midrash: the name you acquire for yourself, which depends on the gifts God gives you, how you use your gifts, what you do with your life – and what your life does with you.
YOU'VE GOT TO DECIDE NOW
Every now and then we hear the same approach from people who want to sell you something (in my case a piece of property on the Australian Gold Coast) and offer such a good deal that they insist that you have to snap it up now. The Jewish approach is quite different. As articulated in this week’s haftarah (Isa. 27:6-28:1 and 29:22-23), it stands for gradualism – tzav latzav kav lakav z’er sham z’er sham, “precept by precept, line by line, here a little, there a little”.
Judaism believes that anything good, especially religion, must be acquired in that way, step by step. You have to test a little, learn a little, and develop a taste for it. The rabbis said a similar thing about the messianic redemption: “Like the dawn, Israel’s redemption will come gradually” (Jerusalem Talmud, Ber. 1:1; Shir HaShirim Rabba chapter 6).
Being forced to decide about anything life-changing, here and now with no time to think and be certain, reminds one of the silly old saying, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure...”