What’s In a name?

We should not be surprised when God promises Abram (later Abraham), “I will make your name great.” Abram is already wealthy beyond measure, with pretty much everything he might want. True, he lacks children, and God will grant him those eventually, but meanwhile, God promises a great name. Why not? What do you give someone who has everything?

What complicates things is that our great sage Hillel (no less!) warns, “A name made great is a name destroyed” (Avot 1:13). How can a great name be Abraham’s reward if “a name made great is a name destroyed”?

In part the answer comes from the language Hillel employs for “made great”: the Aramaic n.g.d, meaning “stretched out, elaborated, extended.” My teacher in rabbinic school, John J. Tepfer, zikhrono livrakhah, “of blessed memory,” used the example of Shakespeare. “Suppose Shakespeare had received doctorates from Cambridge and Oxford, earned and honorary, and begun signing his name, “Dr. William Shakespeare, Ph.D., D.D.” Would his name have been any more glorious than it already is?

At least Shakespeare would have merited the doctorates. Other people’s names get enlarged beyond what their bearers are worth. Take Sir Joseph Porter, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. He was made First Lord of the Admiralty, because, as a politician, “I always voted at my party’s call/ and I never thought of thinking for myself at all./ I thought so little they rewarded me/ by making me the ruler of the Queen’s navy.”

First Lord Porter is just a fictitious dolt, however. Other people – the real-life variety – acquire outsized names that they take with all undue seriousness to wreak damage. The Maharal thus links Hillel’s adage to people who blatantly seek power by building reputations for evil. Think of Tomas de Torquemada, medieval Spain’s First Grand Inquisitor; or Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonssøn Quisling, the Norwegian whom few people ever heard of until he became a Nazi collaborator, and whose surname “quisling” became a dictionary noun meaning “traitor.” Sefas Emes goes farther, to include people who actually pursue virtue, but for the wrong reason – even serving God, but just to establish their names. They may do good things, but their lack of integrity will be their downfall.

The great name granted Abram, Rashi tells us, was nothing like that. It consisted in the addition of the extra letter heh, to make Abram into AbraHam. The letter heh is one of the ways we write the name of God. Its addition to “Abram” made his name (and him) more godly. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, also gets this gift — she becomes SaraH. Kish’mo ken hu, say the Rabbis — “People become like their names.” The midrash explains: “In times past,” God said to Abraham, “I alone could confer blessing. Now that I am part of your name, you can do it too.”

A name made great is a name destroyed – unless, of course, its greatness lies in outfitting the bearer to bless others, just like God.

These past High Holy Days, we read Un’taneh Tokef, a prayer we normally associate with reminders of how paltry we are relative to God. We are but dust and ashes, while God is the Judge, Jury, and Prosecuting Attorney in our court of last resort. God’s years are boundless, while we are mortals, doomed to die. But Rabbi Margaret Wenig points out the prayer’s surprising conclusion: “You [God] named us after you” (sh’meinu karata vishmekha). We are all like Abraham: God’s name is part and parcel of our own.

If so, we all can be a blessing to others. And in so doing, even our deaths are not the final word. When we die, people will say of us (as I said of my teacher, above), zikhronam livrakhah, “remembering us is a blessing,” because however long we lived, and whatever our worldly accomplishments, the only thing that matters is the blessing that we added to their lives. We are indeed mortal, but we transcend mortality by a name made great like God’s.

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4 responses to “What’s In a name?

  1. Thank you, that is beautiful. Our name is all we leave behind, and the name evokes the deeds we did, hopefully for the good.

  2. Quite a wonderful read! Am trying to think who to ask to put an H in my name but I believe your message is to earn it. I will continue to try and earn mine and you already have one, my teacher.

  3. Dear rabbi,
    Thank you, as always I enjoy your insights on the Torah portion.
    I wanted to share something on the Hebrew.
    The term zichrono livracha should actually be zichro livracha- I recently learned.
    The difference being that the former is about memoirs and the later memory.
    Shavuah Tov.

    • Thanks for replying. Actually, the two terms zecher and zikaron are used interchangeably in our classical rabbinic sources. Shabbat for example (in the kiddush) is zecher liy’tsi’at mitsrayim (= a recollection of the Exodus from Egypt) but zikaron l’ma’aseh b’reshit (= a recollection of the work of Creation). Actually, the two terms come from the root sense of “pointing” and designate the idea of pointing to something to arrest attention to it. That is what Jesus meant in the Last Supper when he pointed to bread and said “do this in memory of me.” He meant “Let bread be a pointer to me.” Memory, then,is the capacity of pointing, the way the mind points to what is not actually present. Either Hebrew word will do.

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