What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?
Word cloud of Hebrew names of Bible characters.

In Parshat Vayetzei, twelve babies are born and named by their legal mothers Leah and Rachel. For each boy, Torah tells us what the name meant to the namer. In the case of the one girl, we learn her name, but not her mother’s intention. Perhaps Leah chose the name Dinah simply because it sounded beautiful. Or perhaps Leah, out of sympathy, chose not to lay upon her daughter the heavy expectations that come with a symbolic name.

And the names given to the boys in this parashah come with some heavy expectations! Look at the names of Leah’s first three children.

Reuven: ki ra’ah HaShem b’onyi, ki atah yi’a’haveini ishi

Reuven. Reuben. Look, a son. God saw my suffering, and now my husband will love me.

Shimon: ki shama HaShem ki sinu’ah anochi, vayiten li gam et zeh

Shimon. Simon. The hearing. God heard that I am hated, and thus gave me this one also

Levi: atah hapa’am yilaveh ishi eylye, ki yaladiti lo sheloshah banim

Levi. Levi. Company. Now my husband will be attached to me, because I gave birth to three of his sons

Reuven, YOU will make your Dad love me. Can you imagine the expectations of perfection Mom will have for this kid’s behavior?

Shimon, YOU will compensate for the love I’m not getting. This kid better make Mom feel good all the time.

Levi, YOU will lead Dad to love me. Mom wants this kid to mediate in an adult relationship that is beyond him.

Psych 101, Life Experience 101, Aspects of Childhood we are going to therapy to heal from 101. I don’t need to say anything about how hard it is for kids to carry these burdens, because they do genuinely try.

When Leah’s fourth son is born, she breaks her pattern. She names her son

Yehudah: hapa’am odah et HaShem

Yehudah. Judah. Gratitude. This time I thank God.

Baby Yehudah isn’t given a particular task. He’s just a testament to God’s presence, to the miraculous way that things unfold in time, to the precious nature of things that can be difficult, like conception, pregnancy, and a healthy birth. And growing up. Yehudah’s name is our first hint that we, the readers, will get to see the miraculous way that Yehudah himself unfolds in time. We’ll see his early misguided attempts to be a decent brother in a troubled family and his later misguided attempts to protect his sons by tricking his daughter-in-law. We’ll see how his daughter-in-law holds up a metaphorical mirror in which he can finally see how he’s been bumbling through his relationships. And then we’ll see how, as a mature man, he expresses empathy and love, and risks his life in the name of those values.

His name is Gratitude.

We could say that through a series of historical accidents, our name is gratitude. Yehudah’s descendents, the tribe of Judah, took up residence in the southern part of the ancient land of Canaan. When the Israelite kingdom split in two around the year 900 BCE, the southern kingdom was called Yehudah, Judah. Four hundred years later, it became the Persian province Yehud – Judea. Twenty-five hundred years later, we still call ourselves Yehudim – Jews.

We could say that through deep spiritual insight we choose to call ourselves Yehudim – the grateful ones. The spiritual practice of gratitude is the practice of remembering moments for which we are grateful. If we can remember moments of wonder, peace, love, insight, abundance, moments in which we felt supported by God and by family and friends – then we can know that such moments can come again. Gratitude empowers us with the strength and courage to face difficulties. Gratitude leads to renewal.

Of course Yehudim is not the only name we call ourselves. We are also Yisrael, those who wrestle with God and succeed, we are also Ivrim, those who cross borders. But there’s nothing unusual about having many names. Who doesn’t? I’m Mom, Mommy, Ima, Mem!, Lau, Babe, Mamacita l’avoteinu, Dr. Kaplan, Reb Laura, and, to some very old friends, simply: Duhan.

It’s a wonderful practice to examine your name, to reflect on the various metaphors and allusions in it, to remember what it meant to those who named you, to recognize what it meant to you at different times in your life, and to see how it might serve as a guide for your future choices.

Just to offer you an example for how it might go: I have thought about my own name from time to time.

Laura: the “L” comes from my grandmother Leah, and the “aura” from my grandmother Flora. [I wish my name was Fauna, since I don’t know anything about plants, but give me an animal and I’ll learn its ways.] Both my grandmothers died long before I was born, so I really had very little sense of the meaning my name carried to my parents, other than the obvious fact that they both missed their mothers very much.

During my teen years, I grudgingly began to connect with my name when I read that winners of ancient Olympic events were crowned with laurel leaves. Okay, I thought, my name is associated with victory, and I’m kind of driven, so maybe it’s not such a terrible name.

When I turned thirty, I moved to North Carolina and, for the first time, I saw the flowering tree called mountain laurel. Two tone-striped flowers that looked like little pom-poms until they burst open into stars. And every healthy tree is just covered with crowds of them hanging down. I fell in love with my name. I was proud to say, “it’s the name of a flower!”

Soon I realized that if you sort of mangle French and English, Laura could also be read as l’aura “the aura,” the light, a spiritual light, which I felt was coming into my life at that time.

And a few years later it occurred to me to look at what my full name has become: Laura Duhan Kaplan.

Laura: my given name.

Duhan: my father’s last name, also taken on by my mother.

Kaplan: the shared last name of my family of choice.

Laura: the light

Duhan: birkat cohanim, the priestly blessing, the wish that God’s name may be placed upon people so that they may experience protection, grace, and peace.

Kaplan: the cohen, the priest, the one who helps people celebrate and heal, occasionally guarding the boundaries and occasionally helping people cross them – and trying to figure out the right times for both.

This name defines a way of being that I am trying to learn at this time.

And it actually brings me back to my origins. Because of an unexpected family tragedy, helping people celebrate and heal was my job during the first few years of my life.

I hope to grow back into my name.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving me a name I could grow with my whole life. Thank you Chas, for letting me share your name. Thank you God for giving us language rich with metaphor and meaning

Here is a blessing for us all: May we each find the name that is right for us at this time, and grow into it.

Originally offered as a D’var Torah (sermon) at Or Shalom Synagogue.

Image: letterstojosep.com

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