Posts Tagged 'Names'

What Is In A Name?

God willing Adina and I are expecting our fourth child at the end of July. In this context we have been giving a fair amount of thought into what to name this child. What is in a name?

This question reminds me of interesting writings in Freakonomics where University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner tackle the importance of names. How much does your given name impact your opportunities in life?

This question of the importance of a name was in my head when reading Emor, this week’s Torah portion, in which we account of the case of the blasphemer. There we read:

And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him to Moshe. And his mother’s name was Shelomit, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Bring forth him that has cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him; as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.  (Leviticus 24:10- 16)

On one level we see the tragedy of this unnamed person who is killed because he uttered God’s name. British anthropologist Mary Douglas suggested that if wordplay is admitted, the story could be read to say that the blasphemer hurled insults at the Name of God, and then God ordained that the blasphemer should die by stones hurled at him. Douglas goes on to suggest that the story told to children could go like this: Once there was a man with no name, son of Retribution, grandson of Lawsuit, from the house of Judgment, who pelted insults at the Name, and God said that he should die — because he pelted God’s Name, he should be pelted to death. In this context even though he does not have a name the names of his ancestors have a large impact on his path. He seems to destined for death row. Another interpretation might be that if he actually had his own name he would not have cursed God’s name.

All of this is to say that we are open to suggestions for good names for our child.

Redeemable Building

Why did we merit redemption from Egypt? It would seem that it was foretold to Abraham that they would be redeemed.  But there are still a number of Midrashim  that explore how the  Israelites own merits redemption. Many of the reasons seem to be around their retaining particular mitzvot and symbols of Jewish identity.  Rav Huna said in the name of Bar-Kappara (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5) that we did not change our names or our language, we did not speak lashon ha-ra, and everyone observed the laws of arayot (forbidden relationships). And yet another midrash (Midrash Lekach Tov on Parshat Va’eira) explores if we were redeemed because we retains  distinctive clothing. Most of these cases seems to have to do with with their words/names. How do words create the precondition to redemption?

I think this is interesting when we juxtapose it with the story of the generation of the Tower of Babel. They wanted to make a great name for themselves and they all spoke one language. For some reason similar behaviors were met with very different outcomes. For this generation after Noah, they were met with destruction of their life work, confounding of their common language, and dispersal throughout the world. For the Israelites it also spoke to the end of their labor of building, but Egypt still has those landmarks. We still have our names, language, and we still have one homeland.

We move from Exodus from Egypt in this week’s Torah portion to next week’s Torah portion when we will be standing as Sinai as “one nation with one heart”. In this week’s Torah portion as we are leaving Pharaoh is in hot pursuit. We read, ” Egypt was journeying after them” (Exodus 14:10) On this Rashi comments that this verb ‘was journeying’ is in singular because they were with “one heart as one man”.   The comparison is robust. Common purpose and unity seems redeemable and not uniformity. We are never really building buildings, we are always trying to build communities. We build community with the words we use. It is in these communities that names have meaning. Community is where many of us will find enduring meaning and maybe even our own redemption.

– I am sorry that a draft of this got posted by accident.


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