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September 2, 2014 / 7 Elul, 5774
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Is A Name Just A Name?

A Brussels clerk suggested the name 'Alma Bethlehem' after denying a Jewish couple's request to name their daughter 'Alma Jerusalem'

A Brussels clerk suggested the name 'Alma Bethlehem' after denying a Jewish couple's request to name their daughter 'Alma Jerusalem'

Shemos B’nei Yisroel began last week’s parsha – these are the names of the children of Yisroel. Sure enough the Torah goes on to count each tribe by name. Moreover, the parsha bills itself Shemos – names – as if to draw attention to the deep significance of one’s name, as illustrated by the names of the shevatim, which depicted their personalities as well as their divine calling in life. Shem (name) is contained in the word neshama, bearing out that a name is an intricate part of one’s soul and the source of one’s energy and vitality.

The Shela HaKadosh strongly endorsed the custom instituted by our Torah Sages of reciting a verse beginning with the first letter and ending with the last letter of one’s name at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, as a means to help us recollect our name upon leaving this world — the first question put to us after death.

Wouldn’t inquiring about our accomplishments be more telling? Not if our name says it all. Since the Hebrew letters of our name reveal our divine mission in life as well as our inherent character, failure to recall our name would be an indicator of having failed in our earthly assignment, while remembering it would testify to our having literally lived up to our name.

It is no wonder, then, that one of the great merits factored into our redemption from Egyptian bondage was our having retained our Hebrew names.

The measure taken to add a name to a person who is gravely ill, in the hope that his or her ultimate fate will be altered for the better, is further testimony to how a person’s destiny is influenced by his name.

According to the Noam Elimelech, when a newborn receives the name of a soul in the hereafter, that soul is elevated in the upper spheres and a spiritual bond connects the neshamos of the departed and the newly named child. And yet, in today’s world emphasis is frequently placed on “liking” the name versus appreciation of its deeper connotation. (In Ashkenazic circles it is common to give a name for a deceased relative, while Sephardim have the custom of naming for the living.) New parents who don’t take to any of the names on the list of proffered possibilities, or identify a name with a person who has rubbed them the wrong away, think nothing of choosing a name at random.

Take the family who years ago made aliya and became enamored with a specific Hebrew name for a girl. When their daughter was born, her parents seized upon the opportunity to use the name — while the child’s grandparents back in America were horrified that names of their dearly departed were passed over. In retaliation of what he took to be selfish inconsideration on his daughter’s part, the innocent little girl’s maternal zeida took to calling her “Shmatta’le.” Needless to say, the whole fiasco created hard feelings all around. (P.S. The little girl grew up to be much loved by these same grandparents who, in time, feigned forgetfulness of the whole incident.)

More recently, a young couple visiting Israel went to Meron to pay their respects at the holy burial site of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. On the way, they were involved in a serious car accident. The young man, fearing for the safety of his expectant wife, prayed that she be spared life-threatening injury.

Months later when the woman gave birth to a boy, his great-grandmother was elated that her beloved husband, the deceased elter-zeida, would now have a name. Words escaped her when her grandson visited before the bris to tell her of the neder he had made at the time of the accident — that he would name their child for the tzaddik if his soul would intervene above to ensure their fit survival of the ordeal.

The crushed bubba could have taken comfort in knowing that, according to the holy Arizal, the name given a child by his parents is divinely influenced. This little one was obviously meant to be a Shimon.

What if parents decide on a name and G-d deems otherwise? The following incident demonstrates how divine intervention comes into play: A husband and wife had decided on Esther Gittel for their newborn daughter, but as the father was about to officially name the baby in shul, his father-in-law inexplicably asked him to name her Chava Gittel.

The baby’s father followed suit, much to his wife’s consternation. It would be almost two decades later before the reason for the “error” would come to light — when their daughter became engaged to a young man whose mother, Esther, would never have agreed to accept an “Esther” as a daughter-in-law.

Childhood friends of mine were made up of Katy, Edith, Doris, Lily, and the like. The giving of English names (in addition to our Jewish ones) was common practice and well intentioned, the rationale being that they would prove useful to us in the long run. If you’re one of those whose English name has caught on well in the outside world, the solution may be to have close friends and family address you by your given Hebrew name.

Times have certainly changed. Today we feel little to no embarrassment in committing our children’s Hebrew names to their birth certificates. (Biblical names have enjoyed popularity even in the non-Jewish world, as evidenced by Jacob featured as the number one boy’s name from 1999 through 2010.)

With all of the above, many of us still tend to lean towards nicknames or shortened forms of our given names, which sometimes distort them altogether. In view of how our authentic names intertwine with our spiritual essence, we may well be short-changing ourselves by assigning meaningless monikers to our entities. Before resorting to dropping one of our baby’s two given names or calling our children – the holy neshamos we were entrusted with – by popular-in-the-secular-world names such as Barbara, Hayley, Bryan or Jayson, we might want to give some serious thought to the Baal Shem Tov’s assessment on the subject:

Just like we hold on to a person physically by holding on to his body, so can we hold on to a person’s soul by calling his name. Even when asleep, the most effective way to awaken one is by calling his name.

Amazing as it may sound, the letters contained in our names influence our life force and are intrinsic to the divine purpose assigned to each of us. Used constructively, our names stand to be of great advantage to us, as well as to the world around us.

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