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11/11/2019 03:32:06 PM


Rabbi Weiss

“We All Have a Name”

Lech L’cha
Friday, November 8, 2019

Cory is a strange name for a rabbi. A Google search seems to suggest that there are only two of us—the other being a rabbi for Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles. In the sixties, when I was born, the name came into vogue for a time, then left vogue. I am actually named for someone, I just don’t know who. You see, my Mom (like any good New York Jew) used to read the New York Times obituaries religiously. According to my Mom, one day while she was pregnant with me, she found the name Cory in the obits, liked it, and eventually, gave me the name. So I’m named for someone who died, but that Cory is a total stranger.

My Hebrew name, or I should say, my Jewish name, is an unusual one too. It’s Leizer, short for Eliezer, one of my great-grandfathers. Though I’ll admit, when I tell kids my Jewish name is Leizer they think it’s pretty cool. Sounds a bit like a superhero name, until you add my middle name… Shmuel. Not so super anymore! Shmuel was a great-grandfather too. And when I hear that name, though I did not know my great-grandfathers, I know that I carry their history and their story with me as sure as if I did know them. Carrying on their legacy is part of who I am—it is one of my Jewish responsibilities. In Judaism, names are weighty. They have meanings. They help define who we are.

We learn this from the story of the very first Jew, Avraham, who we meet in this week’s parashah Lech L’cha as Avram. Avram means “exalted father,” and at the end of last week’s portion, Avram leaves his home of Ur with his father to travel to Haran, on their way to Canaan, the land God promises to Avram and his descendants.

God makes three separate covenants with Avram in Lech L’cha. In chapter 12, God tells Avram:

“Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-2).

That is the first set of promises to Abraham: the land, becoming a goi gadol, a great nation, and becoming a blessing to the world.

In chapter 15, we find the B’rit bein hab’tarim, the Covenant Between the Pieces, in which Avram is asked to cut a number of animals in half and walk between them, a common way of making a covenant in the Ancient Near East. This way, God helps him understand the covenant in human terms he can understand. God also gives him a glimpse of Jewish history, showing him a vision of the Exodus from Egypt.

Finally, in chapter 17, we have B’rit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision, where Avram is told that he and all the males in his household will be circumcised, and also that he is getting a new name: Avraham. God says:

“As for Me, here is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of peoples.”

“No longer are you to be called Avram:”

“your name is to be Avraham,"

“for I am making you the father of a multitude of nations.”

Avraham is forever transformed. He no longer exalts his father—he exalts and worships the One God. He will become the father of all three monotheistic faiths—half the world’s population will someday look back to Avraham as their spiritual founder. Names carry that kind of weight in our tradition.

In fact, we rarely refer to Abraham by his old name, even when we talk about his life before the name change. The only time it happens in Tanakh is in the book of Nehemiah, where the author states (Neh. 9:7):

“You are the Eternal God, who chose Abram, who brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and changed his name to Avraham.”

Other than that verse, we never hear Avram again. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud forbid us from using it. In tractate Berakhot (13a), we read:

Bar Kappara taught: Anyone who calls Avraham Avram transgresses a positive mitzvah, as it is stated: “And your name will be Avraham” (Genesis 17:5). The Talmud makes clear that once a person undergoes a name change, we have a strong obligation to refer to them by their new name.

I had a congregant in Chester who was on my original search committee named Robert, but he went by Bob. Okay, fine. One day, a few months after I arrived, he announced to the Torah Study, “From now on, I go by Reuven.” Okay, fine. But not so easy. It took everyone a while to get used to Reuven, but it was the name he chose for himself, it was his identity, and who were we to argue? Al achat kama v’chama, all the more so, I suppose, if God changes your name, as happened to Avraham, to Sarah, to Jacob (whose name change never fully stuck), to Joshua, and even to God, who is variously known as YHVH, El, Elohim, El Shaddai, and perhaps most tellingly, Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh—“I will be what I will be.”

When our names change, so does our destiny. When a person joins the Jewish people through conversion, they get to choose their own name. What a blessing that is for someone who didn’t get to choose, like a Leizer, for instance. Some Jews choose to change their name when they are ill, as if to become new people, to redefine their place in the world.

Names are not inconsequential. Rather, they have the ability to define us and to help us define ourselves. Rebbe Nahman of Breslov teaches (Likutei Moharan 56:8):

“…the Torah is the Name of God, and the name of a thing is its vessel; within this name is contained the life force of that thing. Contained in the name of each thing is its soul and life force. This is why when we call a person by their name, we gain their attention immediately, because their total soul and life force are contained within their name.”

Maybe it would be best for us all that we can be a little bit more like God when God is called “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” as we define and redefine who we are in the world. My hope is that we find the power and meaning of our names, and that they give us strength to be who we need to be in the world. And as we change and evolve and grow, may our names always be the vessels that can contain who we are and who we will become.


Tue, September 29 2020 11 Tishrei 5781