What’s in a Name?
In our High Holy Days Machzor there is a famous poem by the Israeli poet Zelda, le khol ish yesh shem, ‘Every Person Has a Name’ in which she writes in the opening lines:
Every person has a name that was given to him by God and given to him by his father and mother
Each person has a name that was given to him by his height and by the quality of his smile and by the woven cloth
Every person has a name that is given to him by the mountains and by his walls.
Zelda is telling us that names are important, that names signify something.
Names carry with them all sorts of associations: memories, hopes, dreams, and possibilities. The names we are given and those that we choose, tell the world something about ourselves: they may announce our ethnic origin or possibly something about our social class for instance. The dreams that our parents cherished on our behalf may be tied up in the names we have been given, as too may particular family histories. As we travel through life, these associations – these dreams and memories – may at times become burdensome, and, at others, may buoy us up as we envision ourselves a link in the chain of generations.
In this week’s parashah we are told how God changed the names of Sarai and Avram to Sarah and Avraham. Before Isaac is born something fundamental about his parents is changed; through their new God-given names, their identities take on an extra dimension. Whilst it is Abraham who is called by God to Lech Lecha, it is both Abraham and Sarah together who start out on this new journey, a journey of partnership, while God stakes both His claim and His protection via the bestowal of a changed name. They are to become the parents, the progenitors, of a nation that will span many generations, thus becoming the first link in a chain of tradition that links us to them. And, by taking on their name, we then become tasked with forging a further link in this chain of memory and transmission.
So what might it mean to forge a link in this chain? To be part of this family of Abraham and Sarah? We have been given or taken upon ourselves the name of being a Jew – of belonging to a people that traces its origin back to a first mother and a first father – Sarah and Abraham – but just what is the significance of carrying this name? This name of being a Jew?
Does it mean ensuring that we continue to practice our Judaism in a particular way, or that we only hold certain understandings of God, Israel and Torah? How narrowly or how broadly do we draw the boundaries? What and who do we allow to come under the banner of “doing Jewish”?
And what about carrying the name not just of Jew, but Progressive Jew? What does that mean? For me it means pride. Pride at being part of a movement that values inclusivity rather than exclusivity. I am proud to call myself a progressive Jew and to be a part of movement that seeks to find ways of opening the door to Jews of all different colours and hues, committed Jews, ambivalent Jews and wannabe Jews, and to keeping it open. Because to carry the name of Jew for me means to struggle and to ask awkward questions; to be open to inviting the Divine in whilst also remaining open to the world – with all of its joys and difficulties, with both its music and its tears.
Often, it means to sit on the threshold between two worlds: between the secular and the spiritual, between the majority and the minority.
And it means to be brave.
To be unafraid to speak out when we see injustice and pain. To be willing to reach out our hand in friendship, even when we may feel that we stand on the narrow edge of a precipice, and one false step threatens to send us tumbling down, to be dashed against the rocks.
To be brave means to bring God into the world.
Sometimes it means balancing the needs of the other with our own, being willing to step towards the edge in order to stretch out our hand. It is in these moments, carrying the name of Abraham and Sarah, that I move beyond the synagogue walls, beyond the calming and soothing rhythm of our prayers and go out into the world. A world where my choices can feel difficult and messy. A world where my understanding of my Judaism can bring me into direct conflict with others around me. A world that no longer feels quite as safe and easy as once it did, but instead carries the possibility of confusion, disappointment, frustration and pain. And yet, when God called Avram (and so too in consequence, his wife Sarai) to go forth from his birthplace and the house of his father, He did so knowing that it was only through the journey of displacement and wandering that the nation would come into the world; the nation through which God would strive to make Herself manifest.
I believe that God becomes realised in the world when we strive to fulfil the commandment to care for the stranger and the disposed.
When the call of the Prophets becomes the call of the Jew outside of the synagogue hall.
When our commitment to care for the stranger in our gates, translates into a commitment to care for the refugees who find themselves in need of our compassion and assistance.
When the call to care for the orphan, translates into a willingness to campaign on behalf of those who find themselves homeless sleeping on our streets.
When the call to care for the widow, compels us to speak up about the plight of the lonely and frail sitting in the cold behind closed doors fearing they cannot afford to heat their homes.
For me, this is what it means to have taken the name of ‘progressive Jew’. And this name that I have chosen also means keeping the door open to all those who, like Abraham and Sarah, may have left their birth place and their parents’ house and are wandering looking for a home. It means continuing to struggle, continuing to protest. It means holding open the doors and welcoming those looking for a place to grow. It means making the words of our tradition something which is vital and alive, something which breathes and calls. And not confining it to the safe, dusty pages of the siddur.
It means engaging with our tradition and being brave enough to face the world with an open and questioning heart, of welcoming the questions and those that bring them. Entertaining doubt, struggling with disagreement and protesting at injustice does not in my opinion, threaten my name, it only strengthens it. When we debate and question, when we rage and weep, we open ourselves to something more. We open ourselves to those who love us, to the wisdom of our tradition, to our Judaism. And we claim our spot at the foot of the mountain, our own spot at Sinai.
When God changed the names of Sarai and Avram to Sarah and Avraham, he did so in preparation for making them the mother and father of a great nation, of making them our ancestors. They faced this task with great bravery and fortitude. Making their mistakes along the way, they also suffered great loss and pain, but despite this they forged the first links in a chain that has spanned many generations. To struggle, protest, rejoice and to give thanks – all of these are contained in the name of being a Jew.
Lekhol ish yesh shem she natan lo Elohim, ve’ natnu lo avi ve imo To every person there is a name that is given him by God and that is given him by his father and his mother.
Student rabbi Kath Vardi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.