January 20, 2019

What is Your Name?

God created the animals and brought them, one by one, before man to see what he would name them. Man examined the essence of each creature and assigned its name. So teaches Genesis.

The midrash goes farther: When all the animals had been named, God asked man, “What is your name?” And he said, “Adam.” Then God asked, “And what is my name?” And he answered, “Adonai, the Eternal.”

We spend a lifetime learning the names of everything around us. We acquire the survival skills of our culture — social codes, business skills, street smarts. We master the science of our generation. We earn creden-tials and degrees. We amass great quantities of knowledge and then discover that we’ve never learned the answer to the one real question — What is your name? Who are you? What are you made of?

It is a question each one of us must face. But it is unanswerable. At no point are we ever finished, at no point is our story ever complete. “You cannot measure a living tree,” wrote Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, “only a fallen tree. A living tree is in a state of growth, and we cannot assess its stature. What it is at the moment is transitory, and it gives way to the tree’s continuous unfolding. And so it is with people.” The meaning of today is determined by tomorrow. The meaning of one’s life is held in the hands of others.

I stand before a bar mitzvah to offer him the responsibilities and blessings of Jewish adulthood. But before I begin to speak, I catch a glimpse of his grandparents sitting in the first row. They are survivors — the holy remnant of European Jewry. Their eyes have seen what no eyes ever should see. These people, who stood at the gates of hell, in the presence of Mengele himself, today sit here to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a grandson. Suddenly, the moment takes on a new meaning.

Has this boy in his shiny new Bar Mitzvah suit any clue what torturous choices had to be faced, what perilous risks confronted, what agonies endured so that he could stand here today? Should he? Does he recognize his own role in this? He is, after all, the reason they lived. It was for him that they persevered. His life — the choices he makes — either justifies their courage or throws it into absurdity. Surely it is unfair to lay upon his delicate shoulders such a burden. But it is a reality he must grow to understand. And one day, he may find dignity and courage, purpose and vision in upholding this legacy.

Kohelet, the author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, found bitter irony in this: “I loathe all that I had toiled for under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will succeed me — and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? And he will control all I toiled for under the sun … that too is futile!”

No, not futile. This is faith. We can never answer God’s question because the answer is always beyond us. We entrust the answer — our identity and eternity — to the hands of others.

Even God knows this. “What is My name?” God asks us. What will you call Me? What will you make of My name in your world, your life? The fate of God lies in our hands. “Where in the universe does God dwell?” asked the Kotzker Rebbe. And then he answered his own question: “Wherever we let God in.”

“I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name”(Exodus 6:2). So begins this week’s Torah portion. Then God reveals the Name. But though the letters are spelled out, the name cannot be pronounced. In Judaism, God’s name cannot be uttered. Because God is never finished. We’re never finished. Our story, our history isn’t over. We worship a God whose name we cannot articulate. Ours is a God who offers a future eternally open, a future of infinite possibilities and promise. Ours is a future whose name cannot be pronounced.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.