Years ago when I was still working as a rabbi in New York I got a phone call from the president of the congregation in California where I had grown up. He informed me that their current rabbi would be moving to another pulpit at the end of the year and he wondered if I might be interested in applying for the position.
Even though it happened twenty-two years ago, I remember the first thing that automatically came out of my mouth as if it were yesterday. Without a moment’s reflection I said, “I can’t possibly be the rabbi of a congregation where people who knew me when I was just a child will be constantly coming up to me and calling me ‘Stevie.’”
At that moment as I heard myself responding to the offer, I realized that names mattered. What we call something is often a measure of how we value it, how we understand its meaning and role in our lives. I just couldn’t picture myself functioning successfully as a rabbi, being able to minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of a community with many older long-time members who would still look at me and see “little Stevie Reuben” who used to run around the synagogue as a child making noise in the balcony and being sent to the principal’s office during religious school.
Now I am certainly known as one of the most flexible, easy-going, non-judgmental and informal rabbis around. But even I just couldn’t imagine “Rabbi Stevie” working for anyone. So I told the synagogue president (who, by the way, happened to be my first cousin), that I appreciated the offer but didn’t think it would be a good idea.
Names are important. When we are upset or angry with someone, we might call that person a name just to upset him or her in return. People take names seriously, personally, intimately. Names can humiliate and names can be sources of pride and self-respect.
Jewish mystical tradition teaches that there are seventy names for God. The mystics derive the number seventy from the word “Shema,” noting that if you divide the word in Hebrew into two, the first part “shem” means “name,” and the remaining letter “ayin” equals “seventy” in Hebrew numerology. Hence, God has seventy names.
Each of those seventy names represents a different quality of holiness, an aspect of divinity that we are to emulate in our own lives if we want to exhibit qualities of godliness in what we say, how we act, and who we are. In fact, imitating God through the adoption of godly qualities like justice, compassion, mercy, love, and peace is one of the ways that we prove to ourselves and others the fundamental truth in the biblical notion that human beings are created in the divine image.
By imitating the qualities represented by God’s names, we become living testimony that we do have the power to reflect holiness, which is one of the interpretations of what being “created in the divine image” really means.
This week’s Torah portion is called “Shemot,” “names.” It begins with a recitation of the names of the sons of Israel who went down to Egypt with Jacob and whose progeny became the children of Israel who went forth from slavery to begin the world-transforming forty-year trek through the Sinai wilderness.
The importance of names is driven home most poignantly by the famous Biblical phrase (which follows immediately in this week’s portion), that “A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” Whereas for many years the name of Joseph was a key to safety, security, power, affluence and influence for the children and descendents of Jacob, as soon as the name was forgotten and no longer meant anything to those who ruled over the land, the Jewish people became enslaved.
For each of us as well. What we want in life is for our names to mean something, for them to be symbols of the fact that who we are matters. We want others to associate our names with qualities that we are proud of, acts that reflect the best that lies within us, and words that inspire others to know that they can make a difference in the world as well.
In reality we are known by different names to different people depending upon the circumstances of our lives. So when we read “Ve-ayleh shemot” “These are the names…” this Shabbat, perhaps it will remind us that the real challenge of life is to make names for ourselves in all we do that those who come after us will remember with pride.