Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, dismisses the significance of a name. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”
I beg to differ. Let me tell you a story about a little boy and his name.
Almost 39 years ago, in a hospital in Montreal, a boy was born. His parents named him Yisrael. He was named after the first Modzhitzer Rebbe, a Chassidic group most well-known for their music. He grew up on tunes and stories of his namesake. Most notably, how Rabbi Yisrael of Modzhitz once had to undergo surgery, at a time that anesthesiology did not yet exist, and so the Rebbe composed a song – a haunting song during his surgery, channeling his personal pain into a melody that expressed the pain of the Jewish People. Young Yisrael was very moved by these stories, and it inspired him to compose songs at a young age – just like his namesake. Parenthetically, the songs were lousy, but it was a unique hobby for a young boy. Young Yisrael was also inspired to dream of teaching Torah and of leading a congregation – just like his namesake.
If you haven’t yet figured it out, I am awkwardly talking about myself in the third person. This is a story about me.
They say that when parents name their child, they receive a spark of prophecy. Looking back on my childhood, I realized that it’s perhaps more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we teach a child why he or she is given a particular name, that name casts a spell on their thinking and ultimately their life decisions.
Moshe Rabbeinu was named Moshe by Batya, the Egyptian princess who drew him out of the water, ki min hamayim m’shisihu. His name reminded him of Batya self-sacrifice, risking her life to save his. His name represented responsibility, and that’s how he lived his life. Hs name defined his essence.
As a child I really loved my name, but then I got a little older. I had a nickname, a fairly common nickname to Yisrael and that was Sruli. But you see, this nickname was only common in certain circles. I lived in a community where no one ever heard of that name. Sruli became Sroooli. I had to repeat my name often until people got it straight. I remember sticking out in my Modern Orthodox neighborhood. I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was a French teacher who just could not get my name straight and eventually started calling me, Squirrel.
So, I wanted to change my name. I thought I’d fit in more in my neighborhood. I dreamt up a new name that would create a new identity, a new me. I remember bothering my mother about this for quite some time. Her response was masterful. She listened, she was empathetic, and then she shared with me the amount of paperwork I would have to go through to make this name change happen. In French, mind you! I begrudgingly moved on.
There is something incredibly appealing about changing your name as a child or a teenager. At that stage, we’re often times uncomfortable in our own skin. Sometimes we feel like our name doesn’t represent who we are, or who we’re aspiring – or pretending to be. What I experienced as a child is normal, it’s healthy, it’s part of human development.
The greatest prophet of all times grappled not only with his name, but with his entire identity. Despite growing up among Egyptian royalty, Moshe had a kinship with the Jewish People, until one day, after risking his life to save a Jew, he sees firsthand the corruption of his Jewish brethren. Two Jews after witnessing him save a fellow Jew inform on Moshe! These Jews have no commitment to one another. These Jews are pathetic. And Moshe starts to second-guess his commitment to his people.
In the next passage, when we find him at the well in Midyan, he is described by the daughters of Yisro as an Egyptian. Rav Yosef Soloveicthik suggests that Moshe being described as an Egyptian was not only describing his appearance, it reflected his inner state as well – Moshe did not feel connected to his family. The Torah tells us that Moshe ran from Paraoh, but in truth, he ran from his people as well. Moshe was lost and confused.
It took Moshe decades, untold soul-searching, arguments with G-d Himself, until finally, Moshe was comfortable enough to return. How does G-d bring Moshe back home? How does G-d wake him from his slumber?
From the depths of the burning bush, G-d calls out, “Moshe! Moshe!” He calls him by his name, and that wakes him up. Yes, Moshe struggled with his name. Yes, Moshe struggled with his identity. But he still responded to the name of his youth. When our sages teach us that the Jewish People merited the redemption in Egypt because they didn’t change their name, perhaps this is what they mean. It was their name and the stability that the name provided, the connection to the past that only a name can hold on to, that’s what prevented the Jewish people from fully assimilating into Egyptian culture. Holding on to our name grounds us, stabilizes us, in a topsy-turvy world.
So, I kept my name. Perhaps it was my name, the stability it gave me, that helped me stay the course through some turbulent teenage years. Who knows. Eventually I learned to love my name. I learned the meaning of my name. I learned how each Hebrew name, according to the mystics, represents one aspect of G-d Himself.
There is a beautiful custom that I adopted – The Shelah Hakadosh teaches that right before we take three steps back at the end of the Amidah, we should say a verse that represents our name. If you look at the back of the siddur, page 924, you’ll see a list of verses – each passuk is connected to a different name. Those pessukim all describe G-d, in one way or another. And what we are meant to think about when we say this verse is that our name, that WE, have a part of G-d within us. That G-d accesses this world through us, through ME. Our name serves as the conduit for G-d’s greatness to be revealed here on earth.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe once quipped that this the meaning of the third of the ten commandments – Do not carry My Name in vain. Each Jew carries G-d’s name in their name, each Jew carries an utterly unique mission, each Jew carries a purpose – Do not forget that! Do not carry that slice of G-dliness in vain. You’re too precious to not take advantage of the G-dliness that you carry within.
Now let’s be clear, there is no sin in changing your name. There are even times, like if someone is severely ill, when the Jewish custom is to change or add a name. What I am trying to convey is that in this utterly confusing world in which we live in, our name is a connection to our past, our name grounds us with a constant that helps us weather difficult storms, and our name reminds us of the Divine within. How many of us spend any time learning about our namesake? How many of us spend time trying to understand what our name means? We should treasure our name as one of the greatest gifts we have.
As we begin the book of Shemos, the book of names, a book that is a story of the Jewish People, but told through the experiences of individual people, the Torah is asking us to remember our name, to value our name. It’s telling us that Shakespeare was wrong – and I am so glad I didn’t listen to him. The name you were given is prophetic, it paints a picture of your future. The name you were given is an anchor, giving you a sense of who-you-are in a confusing world. The name you were given is a piece of G-d, reminding you of the unique mission that only you can fulfill.