ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNINGS 5774
SEPTEMBER 5 & 6, 2013
Did you hear the news this summer? A baby boy was born! No, it wasn’t the messiah, but by the way the media covered his mother’s pregnancy and then his birth, you could be forgiven for thinking so. This baby boy was born on the other side of the pond, as they say, in England. At the end of July, His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was born, third in line to the throne of England, behind his grandfather Prince Charles and his father Prince William.
I must admit that I don’t understand what the big deal was, at least outside of Great Britain. By the way the American media covered Kate’s pregnancy and George’s birth, you would have thought that George was the next King of the United States! I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that we fought a war specifically to avoid being subject to the rule of England. Something about “taxation without representation” and all that.
Despite my not really caring about the royal birth, I have learned a lot about it just from watching the evening news or reading the newspaper and magazines. One thing that I found especially fascinating was that people were betting on what the baby’s name would be!
After the prince’s name was announced, two days after his birth, there was all sorts of commentary about the names that were chosen. “George,” of course, was the name of many British kings, including the current queen’s father, King George VI, and her grandfather, King George V.
I learned that “Alexander” and its feminine equivalent are also popular royal names. King George I’s daughter was named Alexandra and the current queen’s birth name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary. The name “Louis” is thought to be after Lord Mountbatten, uncle of Prince Philip and second cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II. This child sure does have a lot to live up to!
Earlier this year there was a great deal of speculation about another person, not just what his name would be, but who he would be. On March 13th we learned who he would be – Jorge Mario Bergoglio – better known by his new name and title: Pope Francis, the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. This new pope is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas, and the first from the southern hemisphere. He is also the first to choose the name “Francis,” in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis is known as the patron saint of animals; he also cared a great deal about and devoted his life to the poor. The new pope clearly chose this name for a reason: to remind people of the important work of taking care of the poor, something which he has been doing his entire career. Now he has an even greater stage – world-wide – from which to teach this lesson.
Names. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” That may be true in Romeo and Juliet’s world, but in Jewish tradition names are very important. Parents often spend months considering what the name of their unborn child will be. In Jewish tradition, Ashkenazic Jews name their children after deceased relatives, usually after loved ones who have lived long lives, lives filled with doing mitzvot. Parents tell their children about their namesake so that the children will learn of their ancestor’s good deeds and use that as an example as to how to live their lives. Sephardic Jews, in general, name their children after living relatives for the same reason — so that they can be examples to the child of how to live a good life.
Many scholars have pointed out that in the Bible a person’s name represents his or her personality, as well as the aspirations of his or her parents. For example, Avram and Sarai were re-named by God. By adding the Hebrew letter hay to their names, symbolizing God’s presence with them, their names became Avraham and Sarah (Abraham and Sarah). The name Jacob, Ya’akov in Hebrew, comes from the Hebrew root ayin-kuf-vet, which can mean both “heel,” as Jacob was born holding on to the heel of his twin brother Esau, and “protection,” symbolizing the desire for Jacob to receive God’s protection throughout his life. [Etz Hayim, p. 147] Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby boy she finds in The Nile River Moshe, because she “drew him out of the water.” [Exodus 2:10] However, our Etz Hayim Torah commentary notes that “She intended it as ‘the one who is drawn out (of the water).’ Moshe is active in form and means ‘one who draws out,’ a name that fits his future situation (of drawing the people out of Egypt)…” [p. 323]
According to the midrash, one of the main reasons that the Israelites were freed from Egypt was that they did not change their names: “Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of four things: because they did not change their names; they did not change their language; they did not go about tale-bearing; and they did not engage in immorality.” [Vayikra Rabbah 32:5]
Similarly, Rabbi Pinchas Peli noted in his commentary Torah Today:
One of the main factors that kept the children of Israel together as one people and merited their being liberated, was…the fact that they did not change their original Hebrew names, trying to acculturate in Egyptian society. “They came to Egypt as Reuben, Shimon, and Levi – and stayed as such.” [pp. 55-56]
Their names connected them to the people from whom they came, reminding them of their history, reminding them of the lessons which their ancestors taught.
There is an oft-quoted midrash that teaches that “there are three names by which a person is called: one which their parents call them, one which people call them, and one which they earn for themselves. The last is the best one of all.” [Midrash Tanchuma, Vayakheil 1]
What does it mean to earn a name for ourselves? How do we do that? The midrash itself answers that question: “Every time a person increases their good deeds, they earn themselves a new name.”
My parents named me “Amy,” after my great-grandfather Abraham. (I would have been named “Adam” if I had been a boy.) “Amy” comes from the French and Latin meaning “beloved.” My Hebrew name is Avigayil (Abigail), meaning “my father’s joy.” In the Bible, Abigail is the wife of Nabal the Calebite from Carmel and later becomes the second wife of King David. According to 1 Samuel 25, Abigail is…described as beautiful and intelligent. “The rabbis depict Abigail as a wise and practical woman, capable of acting at the right moment and in the right way. She saves [King] David from committing unnecessary bloodshed…” [Jewish Women’s Archive, “Abigail: Midrash and Aggadah,” by Tamar Kadari] So, as you can see, Avigayil is definitely the appropriate name for me! (Ha ha!)
The name my parents gave me is “Amy,” and the name – or perhaps more accurately, the title– which others often call me is “Rabbi – my teacher,” a title I earned after many years of study. I hope that I fulfill the definition of teacher: “One who shows or helps a person to learn how to do something; to provide a person with knowledge or insight.” [paraphrased from Webster’s New World Dictionary] That’s what I try to do every day: provide some knowledge of our religion and its beautiful traditions. Webster’s Dictionary defines “rabbi” as “a scholar and teacher of the Jewish law; now, specifically, an ordained Jew, usually the spiritual head of a congregation, qualified to decide questions of law and ritual…” [emphasis added]
So I am “Amy” and “Rabbi,” but the name I want to earn for myself is, as the midrash teaches, “doer of good deeds.” In keeping with our tradition, I hope to do my part to make the world a better place. This is my daily challenge.
And so on this new year, I ask you: What are the names you want to earn for yourself? And how are you going to get there?
Shanah Tovah U’m’tukah!
A good and sweet year to all of you!