The Importance of Names in Judaism
This week we will begin to read the book of Shmot in the synagogue on
Shabat. The book begins with a recording of the names of the tribes of
Israel that now came to live in Egypt. What is the reason that the Torah
bothers again to repeat the names of the children of Yakov? After all, we
all aware of their names from the previous prashiyot of the Torah that we
read at the conclusion of the book of Bereshith. Apparently, the Torah
wishes to stress to us the importance of names in Jewish life and
tradition. In fact, we will find throughout the balance of the Torah
readings of the year, the names of the tribes of Israel repeated many
times. So, what is in a name?
Irving Bunim, of blessed memory, would tell a story about a brit milah
that he attended. When the rabbi asked the father for the name of the boy,
the father responded: “Avraham, Yitzchok, Yakov, David, Shlomo, Yosef.”
The rabbi was astounded and asked the father: “why such a string of
names?” The father replied: “Rabbi, I am a poor man so the child won’t
have much of an inheritance. If he looks like my side of the family, he is
not going to be too handsome. If he resembles my wife’s side of the family
he probably won’t be that smart either. So, I decided, let him at least
have a good name!” The tribes of Israel had good names, each one
representing loyalty to God and to Jewish greatness. In the long night of
Egyptian exile it would be the fact that they remembered their names –
their ancestors, their traditions, their vision of the future – that kept
alive their spark of hope for redemption. As long as they remembered their
names they were part of the Jewish people and bound to the eternal
covenant of being God’s people.
There is a Jewish tradition attributed to the kabalistic masters that one
should recite a verse containing one’s name or the first and last letters
of one’s name before stepping back at the conclusion of the silent Amidah.
This is to allow one to remember one’s name even in the hereafter -
apparently even there, remembering our name is important. For in our name
lies our soul and self. That is why Jews always placed great emphasis on
naming a child, for in that name there lay the history and past of the
family and the hopes and blessings for the newborn’s success – Jewish
success – in life. I know of nothing that so deeply touches a family’s
nerve system as the naming of a child. Therefore, before embarking on the
narrative of Israel in Egypt, the Torah first gives us an understanding of
Jewish survival – through our names. There is truly a great deal in our
names. For that will be the key to the eventual redemption and exodus of
Israel from Egyptian slavery.
Rabbi Berel Wein.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org
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