Thursday, December 26, 2019

What's in a Name

Customarily we call people to the Torah using their Hebrew names. “Yaamod Shmaryah ben Tzemach v’Masha.” But we go about our days using our English names. “Stand up Steven Moskowitz.”

Except at synagogue, or perhaps at weddings and funerals, we rarely call people by their Hebrew names. So why are people surprised that our patriarch Joseph goes by an Egyptian name instead of the Hebrew name his parents gave him?

The Torah reports: “Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah.” (Genesis 41) In ancient Egyptian, this means “God speaks; he lives.” First Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his number two, in charge of shepherding Egypt through the impending famine. Then he gives him a proper Egyptian name, as well as a wife, by the way.

Like Joseph we live in two worlds. We carry two names. Our identities are hyphenated. American-Jew. Which name we rely on depends upon the circumstance. Do I identify as a Jew? Or should I be called by my American identity? It depends on who we are standing beside. It depends upon the environment.

The Israeli poet, Zelda, suggests it depends on even more. We have far more than just two names. She writes:
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles
and given to him by his clothing

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls

Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love

Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to him by his work

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.
Her poem is beautiful in its simplicity. It is thought-provoking, and at times haunting. How many encounters, how many circumstances offer us new names? We are left wondering.

How do we wish to be known?

The rabbis offer an exclamation.

“The crown of a good name is superior to them all.” (Pirke Avot 4)

And that works in Hebrew or in English—and even in Egyptian—or any language for that matter.

It’s really all about earning a good name.

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