Parsha Shemot: What’s In a Name?
By Ariella Bracha Waldinger
The opening Torah portion in the book of Exodus is titled Shemot which means “names.” The Torah commentaries teach us that one of the reasons our ancestors merited to leave Egypt and be redeemed was because they did not change their Hebrew name. Holding on to their Hebrew names reflected holding on to their identity as Jews. They did not give their newborn babies an Egyptian name because they understood the difference between the idolatrous and hedonistic Egyptians and themselves—the Jewish nation.
What’s so important about a name, you may ask? Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh in his book, “The Hebrew Letters” teaches that the Hebrew name is of Divine origin and that the letters that make up one’s name are individual Divine forces. The Hebrew name is the channel through which life-force and consciousness descend from the spiritual root of the soul above, to its physical body below. Of even deeper significance, he states, “one’s Hebrew name contains the secret of one’s mission on earth.”
Adam, the first man, was given the task of naming each and every living creature in the Garden of Eden. He was entrusted with this significant mission because he had reached an exalted level of Divine consciousness that enabled him to understand the inherent mission of each creature, along with the deeper meaning of its essence. This teaches us the importance of a name and its meaning.
Judaism places great importance on names because the name is closely aligned with the essence of the person. The name embodies characteristics the parents desire the child to have. In other words, a Hebrew name is laden with both simple meaning and great depth. When a Jewish parent gives their child a name, they are making a statement about their hope of who the child will become. The name carries a powerful identity for the child. The Hebrew letters of the name relate to the Hebrew alphabet and each contain meaning and symbolism. Hebrew is called lashon HaKodesh, the Holy Tongue, which helps us understand that the Jewish name is actually, a very holy component to the life of the Jew. The Hebrew letters which make up the name are not just ordinary letters but contain the building blocks of creation. A name is a divine creation and manifestation.
Every time a name is spoken the Hebrew letters are said to come to life. This is the secret the Sages report in the act of calling the name. The Hebrew name improves one’s connection to life as a Jew and can be drawn into harmony with the strength of the name’s essence. The name brings personal power, strength and understanding because true power lies in the wisdom of understanding one’s role in life and the world.
During the middle ages in Eastern Europe, it became the norm to give children two names: one secular for use in the gentile world and a Hebrew name for religious reasons. Today many Americans do the same. Unfortunately, this practice which was for the purpose of protection has become one of seeking to fit into the society in which one lives. The Hebrew name may not be used at all and the child develops with his secular identity, which has no relevance to his true identity as a Jew. In Israel parents give their child a Hebrew name that is used in both secular and religious life. The Israeli names are extremely beautiful and packed full of meaning and symbolism. Hebrew names are used for calling men to the Torah as well as prayers for sickness. The Hebrew name is also utilized for legal documents such as the marriage document and death notice.
When a Jew makes Aliyah, they are offered the choice of keeping their secular name or switching to their Hebrew name or selecting a Hebrew name, if they do not have one. I find most Jews returning home lean towards utilizing their Hebrew name as an act of connecting to their Jewishness in their homeland. However I have seen both men and women struggle with making the switch to a Hebrew name, as they have come to identify with their secular name. Life is all about claiming your identity! It is about tapping into the identity that was created for you as a Jew through your Hebrew name. When I made the decision to withdraw from my English name and embrace my Hebrew name, in a mystical way, I felt as if an adjustment had occurred in my inner soul, thereby making way for my new soul potential. The Hebrew letters of my name joined with the holiness inherent in the Land and it felt as if they were intermingling and even dancing together, like lost loves, reconnected.
My husband and I couldn’t wait to trade in, so to speak, our non-Jewish names for our Hebrew names. When we got our Israeli passports with our Jewish names we celebrated. It felt as if we had solidified our connection to our nation and to the Divine. It felt as if we were attempting to claim all the power embedded in the Hebrew letters of our names. It felt transformative.
May we all be blessed to tap into the meaning and essence of our Hebrew name and fulfill our potential in the world with G-d’s help.
With Blessings of love and light, Ariella Bracha
Just a reminder to pray for 11 year old, Ayelet bat Ruth, severely burned in a firebomb attack last month.