A name is a relationship


By Rabbi Michael Werbow

This week’s Torah portion is Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1.

How many names do you have? In a midrash in Kohelet Rabba we learn the following: “A person has three names: one that they are called by their parents, one that people know them by, and one that they acquires for themselves.”

So, did you answer three?

I would suggest that, for many of us, three is a low number. Think of what your oldest friends call you. Think of what your family members call you. Think of what a child or grandchild calls you. Think of what you are called at work. Do you have a title: Mr. or Mrs., Doctor or Professor? What about nicknames. Each of us could have many of these.

So, I ask again, how many names do you have?

Now, how many names can you think of for God?

Let’s get the easy ones out of the way. We know of Adonai and Elohim. Other traditional names are Shadai, Shechinah and Tzevaot. But don’t let us forget about Melech, Avinu ShebaShamayim, and Tzur Yisrael (Sovereign, Our Parent in Heaven, and Rock of Israel). If we look further we can see places where we call God Rofeh Cholim (Healer of the Sick), Oseh Shalom (Maker of Peace), and Malbish Arumim (Clother of the Naked).

Each name that someone has for us is based on the relationship we have with them.

Similarly, each name that we have for God is based on a relationship we have or have had with God.

This week’s parshah is Shemot (Names). It begins with a list of the sons of Israel who went down to Egypt. It includes the names of the cities the Israelites build in slavery and it even gives the names of the midwives, Shifrah and Puah. This is surprising when many women in the Bible are mentioned without being named (Noah’s wife and Pharaoh’s daughter, for example).

What is the result of names being mentioned? It increases the relationship we have with them. We connect with these characters and are concerned about their welfare. In our lives, we connect more with people whose names we know. Yes, there are many nameless people in our lives. What about the people who check us out at the supermarket each week, but whose names we never learn? How would the relationship be different, stronger, and more meaningful, if we knew their names?

One of the biggest ailments in our society is loneliness. Some people interact with dozens or hundreds of people a day but are still lonely. These interactions aren’t relationships.

There isn’t knowledge of who these people are. We don’t know their names and they don’t know ours.

Each of us yearns for our own personal Cheers, where everybody knows our name. When the Israelites went to Egypt they didn’t go as a group without individual identities but as singular people. Each one was named and thus each one was valued. They had a relationship with each other and they had a relationship with the Divine.

Build your relationships, learn someone’s name and help them learn yours. ■

Rabbi Michael Werbow leads Tifereth Israel Congregation.

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