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Parashat Shemot, 5778

January 5, 2018

The Power of Your Hebrew Name
A D’var for Parashat Shemot
by Rabbi Irwin Huberman ’10

A popular website which monitors facts relating to pregnancy, birth, and babies recently released its list of the most popular baby names for 2017.

According to this site, BabyCenter, top names for newborn boys were Jackson, Liam, Noah, and Aiden. For baby girls the most popular choices were Sophia, Olivia, Emma, and Ava.

Those who study these trends also note that names like Asher, Ezra, Atticus, and LeBron are on the upswing, along with Cora, Isabella, Amelia, and Charlotte.

Those are the secular choices. But what about Judaism? Although few statistics are kept within the Jewish world, we can remain pretty confident that worldwide there was no significant change between 2017 and 2016, or for that matter, for hundreds of previous years.

This is largely because, within Judaism, we attach a unique meaning to names. The Kabbalistic tradition links word for a person’s soul – Neshama – to the Hebrew word, shem – name.

Moreover, we are taught within the mystic tradition that, when we name a child after an ancestor, the neshama of that grandparent, uncle, aunt or family friend grounds the child for life through the shem.

Your name represents the key to your soul.

A person’s name can mirror his or her character: Samuel 1, 25:25, teaches khishmo ken hu – “Like his name, so is he.”

This is why this week, as we begin reading the second book of the Torah, we are drawn to examine the power and influence of Jewish names and identity.

Some cultures refer to the second book of the Torah by its Greek name, Exodus. Indeed, the book chronicles the journey of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom. We mark this liberation during Passover.

But the Hebrew name for this book is more closely linked to our collective identity. It is calledSefer Shemot – the “Book of Names.

The Torah, at the beginning of this week’s portion, takes great care to name the tribes of Israel. This is a trend that will continue throughout the remaining books of the Torah. For our tribes and our affiliations defined our identity in the desert, and continue to do so to this day.

And soon after the listing of the tribes, it is Pharaoh who first names the Jewish people (Exodus 1:9). He refers to them as B’nai Yisrael, the nation of the descendents of Israel (Jacob).

The Midrash, our collection of ancient interpretations and commentaries, tells us that, although prophecy no longer exists within Judaism, there remains one aspect of Jewish life which is specifically linked to the divine: the naming of our children.

Gematria, the study of how Jewish words translate to numerical values – such as the number eighteen and hai – notes that the value of the word shem is three hundred and forty – the exact number as the word Sefer –  book.

Our Hebrew names represent the book of our lives. Tradition tells us that our names represent our life mission, our journey, and ultimately a basis to judge our lives.

The Midrash states that at the end of our days, as we appear in front of the heavenly court, we will be asked, “Did you live up to your name?”

It is saddening that often, when a rabbi prepares to officiate at the funeral of a family member and asks “what was his or her Hebrew name?” the answer is often “we don’t know,” leading to the scramble to find a Ketubah or other Jewish lifecycle document.

It is perhaps why this would be a good week to ask our mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, “What is your Hebrew name?” And let us record these names for future generations.

For while names like Jackson, Liam, Cora and Olivia may fade during the next few decades as new trends come and go, names like Abraham, Sarah, Moshe, Miriam, Mordechai, and Esther will carry on – as they have for thousands of years.

The Talmud tells us, that one reason why the Jewish people survived slavery in Egypt was that they kept their Jewish names. Notes the Talmud, “They did not change their names, their language, and their mode of dress.”

And so may it be for us.

It is important that we engage as full participants within secular society. It is proper to adopt a name which enables us to seamlessly connect with our fellow citizens.

But let us never forget where we come from – especially this week, as we embrace a new book of the Torah, named Shemot – names.

For indeed, our names provide us with identity.

And as Jews, without identity, who are we?

Rabbi Irwin Huberman graduated from AJR in 2010 and serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Tiferet Israel in Glen Cove, NY.