Everyone has a name that God gives and one’s father and mother give.
Everyone has a name that stature and the curve of one’s smile give and the weave of one’s clothing gives.
Everyone has a name that the mountains give and the walls of one’s city give.
Everyone has a name that the stars give and one’s neighbors give.
Everyone has a name that one’s offenses give and one’s longing gives.
Everyone has a name that enemies give and love for others gives.
Everyone has a name birthday celebrations give and one’s work gives.
Everyone has a name that the seasons of the year give and our blindness gives.
Everyone has a name that the sea gives and one’s death gives.
Zelda [translated by Marcia Falk]
By our names we are known to those who are around us. A name defines us to others. It is one of the first things people learn about us when we introduce ourselves. Some names reveal certain aspects of our lives, for example the loving nicknames parents give their children or the professional “artist” name that creates a public persona. Some people acquire a new name when they experience a major life change, e.g. marriage, conversion or overcoming severe illness. Our patriarchs are good examples: Abram becomes Abraham, the “heh” signifying God's blessing to become the father of many nations, (Gen 17:5) and Jacob is renamed Yisrael, having ”striven with beings divine and human and prevailed.” (Gen 32: 29)
Our rabbis teach us that “every time one increases the number of good deeds they perform, they add to their good name. You find that one is known by three names: the name by which their father and mother call them,
the name by which other people call them, and the one they earn for themselves; the most important name is the one you earn for yourself.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayakhel 1:1)
This Midrash emphasizes our agency in building the name we stand for. On the cusp of a new year, this text reminds us to pause and think -- what name do we want to make for ourselves in 2022?
All well and good, but in this week’s parshah, VaEira, it is God Godself who changes names.
“I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them,.... I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. …Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the YHVH.” (Exodus 6: 1-6)
Jewish tradition knows God by many names, HaMakom (the place), HaShem (the name), HaTzur (the rock), etc. to name just a few. So what prompts God to take on a new name as God is about to be reintroduced to the Israelites, who by this point have grown from a small, free family into a nation of slaves? Our commentators point out that YHVH stands for the fulfillment of the promise to the patriarchs. And yet its realization here is coupled with an open-ended name. For as we learned last week at the burning bush, the meaning of YHVH is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” -- “I will be who I will be.” In VaEira, God seems to tell us “I was who I was” and now I will change and things will change. How does this help?
I take comfort in the notion of an ever-evolving God, as reflected in the name YHVH. For me, this is a sign that wherever we are, in whatever times we live and however our reality is in flux, God is right with us, a partner upon whom we can rely. If we stay connected in the covenantal partnership with this ever-changing God, we can empower ourselves to reshape our lives for the better. May we all feel God’s presence and merit the names to which we aspire in 2022. JN
Rabbi Nitzan Stein-Kokin is the spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix.