What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Parshat Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27

This week, Parshat Lech Lecha, translated as “go forth,” chronicles the earliest part of the Abraham and Sarah biblical narrative. However, at the time of Adonai’s call to Abraham to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land I will show you,” the name of our future patriarch is Avram and his wife, our matriarch, is Sarai. God eventually will change their names but only after several narrative threads are woven.

Avram and Sarai will journey to Canaan, temporarily sojourn in Egypt to escape famine in Canaan and then return. Avram will rescue his nephew, Lot, from local warring kings, and childless Sarai will give her handmaid, Hagar, to her husband, resulting in the birth of Ishmael. Only when Avram is 99 years old will El Shaddai appear to him, promise to make of him a great nation and change his name to Abraham. El Shaddai continues, “Sarai your wife — call her Sarai no more, for her name is [now] Sarah.”

What are we to make of these name changes? Jewish tradition places deep importance on names. Avram’s and Sarai’s name changes are the first, but by no means the last, in the Torah. Another example is the change of our patriarch Jacob’s name. Jacob means “heel-grabber,” and he is so named because he comes out of his mother’s womb grabbing the heel of his brother, Esau. He becomes Yisrael, “wrestles with El,” only after his encounter with his mysterious night visitor.

Sources in our tradition note that the change of Avram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah reflect the addition of one letter, hei. They point out that this letter is associated with the Holy One of Being. Yud plus hei is one way we designate Hashem, “The Name.” Avram and Sarai’s adherence to God’s requests up to this time in the narrative indicates their readiness to receive God’s blessings and to further God’s designs. Indeed, this is the moment when God promises to bless them both and make them the parents of nations.

Others in our tradition note that the letter hei sounds like the vocalization of breath, which figures large in God’s creation of humankind. (“Then God fashioned the man — dust from soil — and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that the man became a living being.”)

Perhaps it is the examples of these name changes in our Torah that has contributed to several interesting Jewish customs. In our past, the names of seriously ill persons might be changed. Folk tradition informs us that it is to fool the Angel of Death. Our tradition also maintains that a child’s destiny is partially and prophetically determined by the name his or her parents choose at birth. Thus, our sages counseled parents to name their children after righteous individuals.

Recent evidence suggests that a person’s name can contribute to his or her success or lack thereof. An Australian study has found that those with short, easily pronounceable names are more likely to receive promotions in the work place. Other studies have found that height and attractiveness also figure into a person’s success. Of course, height cannot be changed and there are limits to how much one can improve one’s attractiveness. Names can be changed. I have experienced name changes several times in my life. I decided to use my given name when I went to college, choosing not to be known by my childhood nickname. This decision was tied up with a desire to be seen and treated as an adult. My second name change occurred when I married and joined my husband’s hyphenated surname to mine. My third name change was perhaps more unusual. When I became an invested cantor, I adopted my Hebrew name, Michal. Years before, a Hebrew teacher had called me “Michal” in class, and it resonated with me the way “Michele” never had. With my change of career, I felt that “Cantor Michal” better reflected the person I had become.

I am no Abraham or Sarah, and my name changes were not declared by the Holy One, but what I have in common with our ancestors is that our name changes reflect who we become. Avram and Sarai of Ur of the Chaldeans could not have known they were destined to become Abraham and Sarah, the progenitors of the Jewish people. Yet, they were sensitive enough to hear God’s call and direction for their lives and brave and faithful enough to act on it. As the Hebrew poet Zelda wrote, “Unto every person there is a name/Bestowed on him by God/And given to him by his parents.”

Our existence as Jews rests squarely on the shoulders of Avram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah, who embraced the names and destinies given them by the Holy One of Being.

Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.