Thursday, 10 Nov 2016

Written by Hannah Kingston

Each of us has a name – Parashat Lech Lecha


Each of us has a name

given us by God

and given us by our father and mother.

Our names are very important to us. They are the way we introduce ourselves to new people, they are how we are communicated with and in part they define our identity. Our friends and family members can play with our names, by giving us nicknames or shortening our names to make them fit our personalities better, and as a way of sharing a little secret, something sacred between you and them.

Each of us has a name

given us by our height and our smile

and given us by our clothing

Our names, in part, define who we are. So how do we deal with the fundamental name changes we go through as our lives progress through their uneven paths. What happens to us, to our personalities and identities, as we take a partner’s name in marriage, or become Mum or  Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, go from Miss to Mrs, or get Auntie or Uncle as a new prefix?

How do we cope with the consequent changes in identity that comes with a new name or title, with unfounded territory, with new responsibilities or expectations? How do we need to adapt ourselves to this change? Do we need to change to fit more comfortably into our new names?

Each of us has a name

given us by the stars

and given us by our neighbours

Four years ago when I joined the Leo Baeck College community, when I went from just being Hannah, to Student Rabbi Hannah, I felt this full throttle. And at the end of this academic year, as I become ‘Rabbi’, I am left to wonder, will I feel these impacts, the responsibilities that come hand in hand with my new found title, even more?

Perhaps at these junctions in our lives, when we take on a new name, we feel similar to our biblical ancestors in this week’s parashah. For this week we join Abram as he leaves behind his childhood and gains a new identity. He and his wife Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. Why the change in name? God states to the newly renamed Abraham that it is because he is to become the father of a multitude of nations. The French medieval commentator Rashi, adds that originally the resh’ in the name Abram showed that he would only be father to Aram, his native place. His new name is a pun for the Hebrew phrase Av – Rav – am, meaning father of many nations, the ‘resh’ still remains in its original place as a reminder of his past.

Midrash offers another explanation, suggesting that the additional ‘hey’ in Abram and Sarai’s names represents the divine presence in their lives, just as orthodox Jews still use the letter hey to stand for Ha-shem, the name of God, in many of their writings. If this is the case, what does it mean for the way Abraham and Sarah now act? If they are constantly reminded of the presence of God in their lives surely their personalities will not remain unchanged? Looking further in our biblical text, to the events of next week, the Akedah and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, does it appear that Abraham and Sarah were more divinely inspired after this name change? On the contrary, perhaps we could argue that their actions show a higher level of comfort with God, meaning they no longer feel the need to act in such a pious way.

Each of us has a name

Given us by our failings

and given us by our longing

Abram and Sarai are not the only characters to undergo name changes in our biblical narrative. Jacob becomes Israel due to his struggle with God, and Hoshea becomes Joshua. However in every case where a new name is given, it is given by God, the supreme name giver. So in our modern day lives, where God doesn’t speak to us and give us new identities, how can we decide when a new title should be given or a name changed?

What gives me, and my colleagues at Leo Baeck, the right to call ourselves ‘student rabbis’? This name was not been given to us by anyone, it is a title that the students are given just by virtue of where we are studying. Being part of Leo Baeck College, the first institution to train Progressive rabbis in England, makes us a part of the 60 year legacy of more than 180 rabbis who passed through its doors before us. As representatives of the college we carry their names on our shoulders. On this shabbat Lech Lecha students are sent countrywide to promote the work of the college marking the shabbat closest to the death of Leo Baeck whose name our college took after his death in 1956. Perhaps unlike Abraham and Sarah, our change in name and our bearing of the title ‘student rabbi’ does not make us more conscious of the presence of God in our lives but instead the presence of the ground breaking rabbis who have gone before us, those who are still alive to see our work and those whose reputations we can only dream of living up to.

Each of us has a name

given us by the sea

and given us by our death.

Inevitably in our lives our names, or titles, will change. And with these changes will come alterations in the ways we act. However, does this fundamentally change the person behind the name? As Shakespeare wrote,

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’

Our names may evolve, and we may evolve with them. We may become a Rabbi, Doctor, Mrs, mum or dad, grandma or grandpa, but fundamentally we remain the same, and that is the most important thing of all. Be true to yourself, you only have one chance to make your mark.

Student Rabbi Hannah Kingston interlaced with verses from ‘L’chol ish yesh shem’ by the Hebrew poet Zelda

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