What do you think of the name Esther? How about Lazar? Or maybe Yael? Or Noah?
My wife and I are expecting our first child soon. We’ve perused baby-name books and clicked through numerous websites and mommy blogs, all to find just the right name that’s unique but not too weird, traditional but modern — and maybe a little Jewish.
We’ve asked friends and family members for feedback. I have a list of possible names on my phone I pull up for anyone willing to scroll through it. We don’t always like what we hear. People associate names with people they’ve known. Maybe they had a high school crush on a Gabriel, so they like that name. Or they think Chaim is too hard for Americans to say (which is probably true).
There are thousands of names to give a child, which makes it that much harder to pick the right one.
Growing up in the suburbs in New Hampshire with a name like Avishay Artsy, I know how a name can make you stand out. I wasn’t teased too much, but people did come up with nicknames: Ashtray. Aftershave. One substitute teacher even called me “Alf” — but that’s because I wore sweatshirts to school featuring the whimsical TV alien.
My name means “gift of God” or “gift of my father” (in Hebrew), but it’s also a reference to my father’s name, Yeshayahu (Isaiah in English). I was also born on the 17th day of the month of Av, which is written in Hebrew using the letters alef and vet for the month, and yud and zayin for the day — spelling Avizay. They liked Avishay better. The point being my parents put a lot of thought into my name, as well as those of my siblings.
Discovering the Name
The first Torah portion in Exodus is Shemot, Hebrew for “names.” “These are the names of the Israelites coming to Egypt…” (Exodus 1:1).
That might be where we got the name of the parsha, but that is not where the parsha takes us. Namings take place throughout Shemot. Moses gets a new name from the daughter of Pharaoh — her mistaken grammar is a mask for prophecy. In rabbinic commentary, the daughter of Pharaoh receives her name, and of course, God reveals God’s name to Moshe.
Take Pharaoh’s daughter’s naming of Moshe. You remember the story: Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, puts her baby in a little tevah, or vessel, made of papyrus. The word “tevah,” when it appears in the Bible, is usually translated as “ark” — the same word is used for Noah’s floating biosphere. (Perhaps to say: Just as Noah’s ark carried a new start for humanity, so does Moshe’s ark.)
The heretofore unnamed daughter of Pharaoh goes down to the Nile to bathe. She sees the ark stuck in the reeds (the suf) and the crying baby within. She realizes he is one of the Hebrew children, but she pities him, takes him in and finds him a wet nurse. She names him Moshe, saying: “Ki min ha’mayim m’shitihu” (because from the water I drew him out).
Pharaoh’s daughter prophetically sees the fortune of the crying infant and names what he is to do years later — draw the people of Israel through the water of the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. He is the Moshe, the One Who Draws From the Water.
According to the sages, this baby boy already had a name. In Shemot, we are told that when the boy was born, his mother looked at him and said, “Ki tov” (how goodly).
Yocheved uses the same phrase God did when He saw the days of creation — “Ki tov” (It is good). Perhaps it is used to say that the story of creation represents the birth of the world, the moral aspect of which had gone so awry, and the birth of Moses symbolizes the rebirth of the moral universe.
Based on Yocheved’s exclamation, the sages say that boy’s name was Tuvya: the goodness of God — “a sign that he was fit for prophecy.” But the sages remind us that the prophecy of Pharaoh’s daughter established the name that even God would use. Moses’ name would not be based on his capacity, Tuvya, but rather his deeds, Moshe.
We don’t know the name of Pharaoh’s daughter until the sages name her: Batyah, the daughter of God. Her compassion and devotion to Moshe made her the adopted daughter of God.
Rabbinic midrash adds a beautiful symmetry to this already mysterious irony: The daughter of Pharaoh names the greatest prophet of Israel, and the sages of Israel name the daughter of Pharaoh.
A modern midrash fills this out. Israeli poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, the first cousin of the Lubavitcher rebbe, wrote an extraordinary poem titled, “Unto Every Person There Is a Name” (“L’chol Ish Yesh Shem”), which contains the following lines:
“Unto every person there is a name
Bestowed on him by God
And given to him by his parents….”
As we meditate on this idea of names, of names given and destinies and identities established, questions arise: How is our inner identity established, that living tissue of inner essence, that mutely conscious dimension of our souls which gives continuity to our inner lives? Are we only named by the names people call us, our admirers and detractors together? Are we named by our aspirations or our failings, or by what we have learned as we step and stumble from one to another?
I believe that God has placed a secret name within each of us, and that it is our life’s purpose, at least partly, to know and speak that name with all we do. There are moments in life that define our names. The rest of our lives can be spent living up those moments or atoning for the moments when we have forgotten our inner name.
And in each of these moments of internal naming, where some aspect of our spiritual identity is engraved upon the soul, God is present.
Moshe said to God: When I tell the Israelites that the God of their ancestors has sent me, they will ask me, “What is his name?”
God says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (I shall be who I shall be).
I think of God here, in this context, as being present in our spiritual strivings. God’s inner identity, the unknowable infinite nothingness of the Divine, is not what Moshe is asking. Moshe is asking of the name of the God sending him to this work that will define his life.
God says, perhaps: Don’t ask for me a fixed identity, a name that will ease your anxiety as you go about your life’s work.
Perhaps God is saying: “Get to your work, discover your name and I will be there with you.”
Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.
A Blessing for the Father
A few months ago I flew from Long Beach to Brooklyn. It was a long, sad and lonely trip. A few days earlier, my mother had turned 82 years old and was looking forward to a special birthday, when tragedy struck. A fire broke out in her home. Quickly, her life was taken by fire and smoke. No goodbyes or time to prepare for closure, just a cruel death.
My father survived the fire but lives daily with his memories. He now spends his time living a day or a week with different children and grandchildren. He recently came to California to join our family for the holidays. Even though the children and grandchildren were here something big was missing. Yes, our dear mother, the grandmother, was missed.
One way Jewish people deal with the grieving process is to name children after their dead parents, grandparents and teachers. Somehow, having a child carrying the name of a departed loved one brings a closure and tranquility.
In large families the happiest times are the holidays. That’s the time for family reunions, when adults visit with their children and grandchildren, and the mood is festive and merry. It’s a time for cousins to meet for the first time. Children find out that they are special and connected to a big family. It’s like a large tree with so many branches and leaves, each growing in their own direction, forgetting that they all come from the same root.
My American grandfather Shea had six sons. When he died, each son gave their newborn baby boys the name of their father, Shea. So at their gatherings there were five or six children called Shea Hecht. When their holy Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok died, they named their next newborn son Yosef Yitzchok. Now there were six Yosef Yitzchok Hechts. You can imagine how the third generation of boys felt when asked who they were. They had to explain that they were the sons of the sons, causing lots of confusion.
During the holiday this year, my father was sad, but he would not speak of the tragic loss. Then suddenly the phone rang: a grandchild had given birth to a baby girl. Now mom had a name.
On the following Sunday, my son called and said, “Mazel tov — congratulations, my wife gave birth to a baby boy.”
My father jumped and said, “Today is mother’s 82nd birthday, what a gift.”
Now, once again I am on the same flight to Brooklyn, but this time to celebrate the circumcision of my grandson, who was to be named Mordechai after his grandfather. My son Boruch is named after my grandfather Boruch and now his son is named after his grandfather.
It may be that our parents and grandparents don’t die; they just pass on, adopting new bodies, continuing the blessings of having wonderful families that continue their family heritage and lifestyle. Sometimes it certainly seems to be so.
I asked my father if he was happy with his life.
He answered, “A father doesn’t ask himself if he is happy. Instead, he asks himself if he is doing the right thing. When the answer is yes, then he is happy.”
Unfortunately, for so many fathers the opposite is true. If they are happy, they reason that whatever they are doing must be the right thing, regardless of the cost to the family.
My job as a father has been made simple by being blessed with a father who expects you to live like him.
There is a “Father’s Prayer” created by the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslow (1772-1810):
“Dear God, teach me to embody those ideals I would want my children to learn from me. Let me communicate with my children wisely — in ways that will draw their hearts to kindness, to decency and to true wisdom. Dear God, let me pass on to my children only the good; let them find in me the values and the behavior I hope to see in them.”
A happy Father’s Day to you all.
Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice-president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past-president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita.