What always changes yet ever remains the same?
Parshat Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9:35
Sometime circa 1987, my uncle sent me a video cassette (remember them?) of a home movie he had made with his 8-mm camera (remember them?) of my family’s Fourth of July 1962 backyard barbecue. Within this technological time capsule I discovered a spiritual treasure trove.
The camera first turned to my grandmother. She rose from her chair and danced a little Eastern European jig. The scene fascinated me. My grandmother died in 1980, but there she was vital and alive in the movie. The camera turned next to my father tending the grill, giving a cursory nod to the lens, then turning his attention back to the grill. My father died in 1984. It suddenly struck me that I was looking at ghosts: the ghosts of my grandmother and my father. The scene then shifted to me, mugging for the camera, my 15-year-old face crowned by a resplendent pompadour ala Elvis. Yet, another apparition then appeared of a 15-year-old who had long since vanished in every way but one.
The movie was a touchstone. How much I had changed over the years, physically and emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. How much do all of us change, year after year, in truth moment by moment? Only one thing about us remains immutable: our name. We are, we have always been, and we will always be our name, even after we die.
No wonder that Jewish tradition praises a good name. Proverbs taught, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” Ecclesiastes added, “A good name is better than a precious ointment.” The Talmud and Midrash repeatedly acclaimed a good name, for example: “Happy is the one who grows up with a good name and departs this world with a good name.” But Ecclesiastes Rabbah added a twist to rivet our attention: “Everyone has three names: the name given by parents, the name others call one and the name that one earns.”
A name, per se, never changes, but the meaning that adheres to that name can change. The Torah first taught this verity in the verse from which the title of our sidrah is taken, Vaera. God says, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, ‘God Almighty,’ but according to My Name, ‘YHWH,’ I did not make Myself known to them.”
Not quite. God was simply being subtle, thereby enticing us to ponder a point. Even before Abram had become Abraham the first Jew, he knew God by YHWH. Isaac invoked YHWH in blessing Jacob and Esau, albeit errantly, intending his blessing of Jacob for Esau. YHWH appeared and spoke to Jacob in the dream of the ladder rising up to heaven, angels ascending and descending upon it.
Last Shabbat at the burning bush, Moses asked God’s Name. God replied, “EHIYEH ASHER EHIYEH.” Translations vary, “I am who I am,” “I will be what I will be,” etc. This Shabbat, God renders it more succinctly, “YHWH.” How might we translate this? In a word, “Is-ness!” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had experienced and construed YHWH in one way, Moses now experienced and construed YHWH in a deeper way. In either case and in all cases, YHWH is undefinable and all-definable “Is-ness.” God’s Name YHWH never changes, but the meaning of YHWH is as infinite as being itself.
As for us mortals, the three names according to Ecclesiastes Rabbah are more than enough to embody the complexities and the potentialities of our individual being. “The name given us by our parents” ever remains our name. “The name others call us” is our reputation, what others think and say about us. Few things in life are more tenacious than a reputation, and few things can turn more quickly on a dime. Think of the name that Bill Cosby once was, and think of that name now. Then there is “the name one earns.” This is the name we strive to identify ourselves by. We cannot control what others may say about us, but we can control our values and aspirations and our determination to realize them.
Our name is the answer to the riddle, “What always changes yet ever remains the same?” Among life’s many treasures — love of family, meaningful friendships, compassion and generosity for the human condition, a livelihood that is rewarding in every way, sweet memories that dissipate death and love of Torah, especially for the Jewish people — a good name shines bright among all treasures.
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.