Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Written by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh

The Naming of Names

Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky was born into a pre-eminent Chasidic dynasty in 1914 and emigrated to Palestine, as it then was, in 1926. By the time she died in Jerusalem in 1984 she was known throughout Israel, and much of the Jewish literary world, as Zelda, one of the most loved modern Hebrew poets. From the publication of her first collection in 1967, Leisure, which was received with wild acclaim, she cemented her place in the heart of her country as, not only a dominant literary figure, but also a folk hero.

In 1974 as part of a new collection, a poem called Lekhol ish yesh shem, Each of Us Has a Name, was published. It reads as follows:

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given us by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbours
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

[Trans. Marcia Falk, The Spectacular Difference, pp.141-143]

The power of Zelda’s poem, which has both a mystical and a practical weave, is contained in the challenge it poses to us about the quality of our lives.

In biblical times things were much simpler, at least so far as names were concerned. You had your name, you were son of, and then you had your father’s name. The book of Numbers begins with a census, the text stating ‘Take a census … list the names …’, followed by the names of the heads of the tribal houses, so-and-so the son of so-and-so, and so on. Some of the names hit us straightaway, Nachshon ben Amminadav being the most prominent, the name of the Israelite who waded into the Sea of Reeds before it had divided and by his act of faith making the miracle of the dry crossing happen.

The structure of a Hebrew name also indicates that in many cases – in ancient as well as modern times – whereas a son growing up is identified often as his father’s son, once adulthood has been attained, especially but not exclusively when sons are successful, a father will become known as his son’s father! A reversal that is usually cherished by both parties.

But whatever the significance of names in biblical times, in the modern period we are able to articulate more clearly their range and depth.

Zelda’s poem reminds us that we live in many different contexts, or, as Shakespeare put it, ‘one man in his life plays many parts’, and a thinking person must reflect on the constituent parts that make up the whole.

We begin within our families as children, as often as not defined by association to our parents. When we start our education matters become more complex: we are part of a class, part of a year group, a specific teacher’s pupil; we are part of a peer friendship group, defined by those friends; we may be lonely and isolated, or different, and we may be defined by those who bully us; we excel in some subjects, and are defined by our success, and we fail at others and are defined by our failure. We leave school and start work, or go to university and continue our studies at a higher level, and in both a new raft of definitions begin, determined by friends, peers, professors. We embark on serious relationships, we fall in love, we marry, and we are defined by our partner. We become parents and enjoy the equally joyful and stressful definition as our children’s mother or father.

We grow older, our parents grow older still, and then die. Suddenly, the lodestone to which our lives have been anchored since the day we were born is dislodged; we float on our own with a new and not wholly comfortable definition of ‘the older generation’. The cost of that designation is, however, softened by another that may follow or precede it, when we become grandparents, defined by our grandchildren in our relation to them, and sometimes similarly by our children.

And then, when we die, apart from our genetic legacy, if we have one, all that is left is our reputation, our good name. We tend to let that truth pass us by, not least because most of us choose not to think about death, but after we are gone it is the mention of our name that will provoke a reaction, positive or negative, that will stir emotions, that will raise a smile, or a grimace.

One of the biblical phrases by which I have always been intrigued is Anshey Shem, translated usually as ‘well-known’ or ‘famous men’ [NRSV] or as ‘men of renown’ [AJV], or ‘men of good standing’ [NEB] but literally meaning ‘men of name’. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew gives ‘reputation, fame, renown, good name and by-word’ as one set of meanings of the Hebrew shem.

These anshey shem were leaders of the people, men with a powerful reputation, and as such were expected to behave better than all the rest, to lead by example, making their failures all the more dramatic, and damaging. Every age has its anshey shem, the good and the bad, but it is not just those who strut and fret on a national or international stage who have reputations, and something to lose … we all do.

The rabbis understood this truth only too well, their thinking encapsulated in the aphorism of the mystic rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai –There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name excels them all. [Avot 4.13].

The frenetic pace of modern life conspires to make us live forever in the moment, rarely having time for reflection, hardly pausing to think about how the person we are affects those we live and work with, and how this impacts upon and influences our reputation. We certainly don’t invest time in thinking what our reputation will be once we have left our earthly life, and how that reputation may positively or adversely affect the lives of those we loved while we lived.

It is worth pondering how our conduct in our active years could influence our reputation, the good we do, and the people we love, after we have gone.

Repentance for ‘sins’ may be a concept that more and more find difficult to assimilate and comprehend, but reputation, the crown of a good name, surely isn’t! As Jews we live our own lives within the millennial continuum of Jewish history, which, among a multitude of other things, teaches us that the actions of one generation will influence another and make it much more straightforward for us to take this message into our own lives.

One of the loveliest biblical references to the value of a good name can be found in the book of psalms. Psalm 72 is all about kingship, not any sort of kingship but good kingship and its impact on those directly affected by it. It is a psalm that does not occur in the liturgy, but which deserves more attention because much of its content applies to everyone. Towards the end, in verse 17, it states:

May his name endure forever, may his name outlive the sun, may all the people who knew him be blessed by their connection to him, may he be a source of happiness for them. [my slightly free translation]

As we contemplate our lives and all the names they gift us, let us not ignore the great truth that our name is also our reputation and so live our lives that the words of the Psalmist are a deserved epitaph after we have gone.

Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh
Dean, Leo Baeck College
Ordained 1986

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.