One verse, Five Voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
Your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. – Genesis 8:11
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinics Studies, AJU
Jewish tradition places great significance on names. With the addition of just one letter, at the age of 99, Abram becomes Abraham and his transformation to the father of many nations is confirmed.
At the same time, Abraham is not the only biblical figure whose name is changed. Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel. Joseph, Joshua and Esther all experience name changes. With these models, a long-standing custom emerged to introduce a name change after a grave illness or other life-changing moments.
So important is naming that rabbinic Midrash teaches: a prophecy. From one’s name comes his/her destiny. As one is named, so too is his/her reputation. In the Book of Samuel we read, “K’shem ken hu — like his name so is he.”
Ashkenazic Jews name children after those no longer living, while Sephardic Jews name children after the living — both hoping and praying that the child will be endowed with the positive traits and strong image of the one for whom she/he is named.
In the end, it is up to each one of us to be worthy of the name we have been given — to create a good reputation, to live in kindness, compassion and commitment, and to remember the lesson of Ecclesiastes: “A good name is better than fragrant oil.” Ken yehi ratzon — so may it be.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
Spiritual leader, Temple Ner Simcha
The addition of the letter Hei into Avraham’s name occurs at the end of this week’s Torah portion, but to understand it, we need to look at how the portion begins. God tells Avram lech lecha, “Go to/into/for yourself away from your land, your family and your father’s house, to a place that I will show you.” These first words to Avram define their relationship and are the essence of the entire portion. We are commanded to go into ourselves, away from what we know, to a place of God’s choosing. Be still. Meditate. Listen. Receive.
Sefer Bahir teaches that God added the Hei so that “all parts of Man’s body should be worthy of life in the World to Come” (Bahir 8). This is based on the Talmudic teaching that Avram was first given mastery over 243 limbs (the numerical value of Avram), but with the Hei, he mastered all 248, the additional ones being two eyes, two ears, and his sexuality (Nedarim 32b). These five are the ones which most easily distract us, and make it difficult to focus on spirituality.
With God’s covenant of placing the Hei in Avraham’s name and Avraham’s commitment of circumcision, Avraham removes himself from the distractions of what he sees, hears and is attracted to. Instead he deepens his spirituality, masters his appetites and becomes worthy of a true life. Like Abraham, may we all be blessed to have God’s name present in every word, action and experience of our lives.
Author, president of SANE
Each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet possesses a particular life force and power. Kabbalistically, the three lines of the letter Hei represent thought, speech and action — the totality of human functioning.
One meaning of the root word Hei (spelled Hei-Yud), is “to break” (free). Significantly, God implanted the Hei into Abram’s name after commanding him to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, to set out for an unknown destination. By breaking away from his past and hearkening to God’s command, Abram would fulfill his potential and become Abraham the Patriarch, father of multitudes.
The Hebrew word eretz (land) comes from the root ratz (to run), which is also the basis of ratzon (desire). Running indicates a desire to go somewhere. If this desire is not directed toward a spiritual goal, it may deteriorate into escapism, distracting you from reaching your true potential.
Your “birthplace” represents your genetic predisposition to a particular temperament. Your “father’s house” is your family background. Abram was raised by idol worshippers in an environment alien to and devoid of the spirituality his soul sought.
By adding the Hei, HaShem empowered Abraham to shed his past and to lech lecha, to go to his true self, to become the progenitor of a great nation.
This is a lesson for all humanity: God, with his unlimited powers, grants us unlimited ability to conquer our past, change our inborn temperament, and discard limiting beliefs and distracting habits, in order to reach our true selves.
Rabbi Ari Segal
Head of School, Shalhevet High School
This pasuk suggests a shift in Abram’s very nature. Something changes when Abram becomes Abraham, when he adds the “ha” to the name of his youth. The shift is toward fatherhood, not just of a single child or family, but “of a multitude of nations.” (Using the English, we might call this Abram’s “aha!” moment.) But what does this “ha” mean, that such a small sound established Abraham as one of the greatest patriarchs in history?
Well, “ha” is not a random syllable. It is a word, which, when used in Bereishis 47:23, means “to give to someone else.” “Ha” is a word of inherent generosity, a word that implies selflessly and ceaselessly providing for the needs of others.
“Ha” is what it means to be a parent. In adding that word of giving to his name, Abraham came to embody the care and sacrifice that defines the experience of parenting. And the implications go further. Parents are invested with considerable power as leaders of their families. As Abraham becomes the father to the people who will be a leader among nations, the truest characteristic of parental leadership is embedded in his identity.
A leader is not the person who wields the most power, but rather the one who exhibits the most graciousness. The person who gives the most of his or her time, energy, resources and spirit — he or she embodies the generosity inherent to leadership, be it of a family, a community or a nation.
Torah teacher and lecturer
Our sages taught us that before the creation of the world, HaShem created the Hebrew letters and concealed in each one unique spiritual powers. When HaShem wants to show Avram a practical path to transformation, so that he may fulfill his destiny and disconnect from his past, he adds the letter Hei to his name.
He is part of HaShem’s name, and so HaShem imparts a piece of himself unto Avraham, instilling in him great new powers.
The name Avram means “father of Aram” — the country he came from. Now, as Avraham, he is to be the spiritual father of a multitude of nations, and in fact, the whole world. The power of the Hei is the ability to manifest things from the theoretical into the actual.
It’s the power of giving birth, and indeed Yitzchak is born after Avraham and Sarah receive their new names. Hei also signifies prosperity, healthy ego, steadfastness of principles, strong leadership and gentle sensitivity.
Avram is further commanded to circumcise himself in order to be whole. Rashi explains that Avram is not in control of five parts of his body: two eyes, two ears, and the head of his male organ. HaShem adds the letter Hei (which has a numerical value of five) to his name, bringing the total numerical value of his name Avraham to 248, equivalent to the 248 parts of the body, and the 248 positive commandments. HaShem thus makes Avraham whole, and ready to fulfill his mission.
Weekly Parsha: Noach