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The Power of Naming

One of the most challenging, and profound, decisions new parents make is what to name their children. They often worry how others might perceive the names they choose. Will others like the names? Will children embrace their parent’s choice? How will these names frame their identities?

The Torah states: “And God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the Human to see what he would call them; and whatever the Human called each living creature, that would be its names.” (Genesis 2)

The medieval commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi, suggests that the first human being could recognize the essence of every animal and name it accordingly. I wonder. Does the name given to each of us become our essence? Does one’s character emerge immediately? And how is this connected to our names?

The power to name is unrivaled.

The Torah opens with the creation of the world. In its first lines we read, “God called the light Day and called the darkness Night.” (Genesis 1) God names.

The power to name is God like.

And God gives this power to humanity. Throughout our lives we name.

Often friends give each other nicknames. (Rabbi David Kimhi is called the Radak.). On sport teams players give each other names. These suggest privileged knowledge. Couples give each other private names. These suggest intimacy. Naming defines relationships.

It is unique to humans. It is shared with God alone.

Other times we use the power of naming to push people away. Look at the discussion surrounding immigration as but one example. When we call immigrants “illegals,” we turn our backs to their plight. We define human beings as other. Then again, even when we use the term “refugee” we place others in a category deserving of our benevolence.

There is only one proper way to call another human being. That is by the name they were given or perhaps by the name they have earned. To name is God like.

Learn their names!

Too often language is coarse and hurtful. Instead, it can be holy. Naming can be an instrument of God’s compassion.

When we name, we have the power to do God’s work.