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The Power of Your Hebrew Name #436

07/12/2016 07:04:13 PM

Jul12

The Power of Your Hebrew Name #436

The great novelist Mark Twain was in awe of the Jewish peoples' ability to survive.
 
He asked, "What is the secret of the Jew's immortality?"
 
Twain noted that great nations such as the Greeks, the Romans, and the Persians "held their torch high for a time....and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.... All things are mortal but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains." 
 
So what is it about us? Why are we still here?
 
Perhaps no other culture has embodied the "David and Goliath" story better than the Jewish people.
 
At the close of the Passover Seder, we recite an ancient ditty titled Chad Gadya. It's a seemingly meaningless rhyme about a little goat which is overpowered by the cat, the dog, the stick, the fire, the ox, and the angel of death, among other forces.
 
But a closer inspection reveals that each symbol represents an empire which once sought to neutralize or annihilate the Jewish people, but ultimately failed. These included the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and Ottomans.
 
Over time, one consumes the other, and in the end, all that's left is the little goat.
 
The question of Jewish survival is embedded in this week's Torah portion, Va'Era, as we recount the story of Passover, and the initial seven plagues. As we read accounts of Egyptian brutality and persecution, we can't help but ask, "How did the Jewish people survive more than two hundred years of slavery?"
 
The Midrash, our ancient collection of Jewish stories and commentaries, weighs in on this.
 
Rav Huna identifies in the name of Bar Kapparah the four characteristics which helped assure Jewish survival.
We maintained our language
We did not engage in widespread gossip
We did not adopt the loose sexual practices of those around us, and
We did not change our Hebrew names.
It is interesting that, while Greek translators designated the second book of the Torah Exodus, Jewish scholars named it Shemot, the Book of Names.
 
The title reflects a recognition that there are few more powerful forces in life than the strength of our name. Many of us carry the name of someone who is no longer with us. Others have acquired a Hebrew name later in life, or through conversion.
 
But each Hebrew name is important. The Kabbalah, our mystic tradition, teaches that the name we inherit or choose spiritually links us with the person or persons who previously carried it. A grandparent, a family friend, a role model. Each name has a history, a tradition and a guiding light.
 
What is your Hebrew name?
 
We are known in the United States by our English names. But it is the power of our Hebrew name which links us to past generations, and which will be eventually transmitted to our descendants.
 
Some of you know me as Irwin. But my real name is Yisrael. I am named after my paternal great grandfather, Yisrael Perel (z'l). He was not only a great Talmudic scholar, but also a mensch.   
 
Isn't it interesting that three great grandchildren were named after him. Two have become rabbis, and the other is a great mensch within the business world.
 
It is often heartwarming for the Cantor and me to preside at the naming of an infant, so often named after a deceased grandparent whom we knew in life. We remember that grandparent, and can't help but feel that his or her spirit has been gently placed in that newborn.
 
It is one of the ways in which we endure as a people. It is also the answer to one of the riddles that Mark Twain sought to unravel.
 
It is one reason that our synagogue has designated January as Names Month. It's a month to rustle through those old boxes, and confirm your name, or the name of a parent, while they are still here to tell their stories.
 
We are also launching a CTI names registry. Call the office if you wish to record your name and the name of your children or parents.
 
And if you do not have a Hebrew name, or wish to add one, we will do so during Shabbat services, on January 30 - the morning we read the Ten Commandments. The Cantor and I will be honored to help you.
 
Of course, the secret to Jewish continuity is contained in more than a name. As Rav Huna noted centuries ago, the practices of keeping moral focus, refraining from gossip, and retaining our traditions are paramount.
 
All the more reason to either a re-establish and build upon the names we have been given or chosen. For in the future, it will not be the quantity of our physical assets that we will be remembered for, but rather quality of our name.
 
Let us endeavor to build upon that name, so that it may be worthy of passing on to those who follow.
 
Indeed, the first Jew within our tradition, Abraham, was moved when 
God promised that his name will be a blessing. Each of us, as descendants of that tradition possesses that potential.
 
Renowned German writer and politician Johann Goethe once observed that "Every Jew, no matter how insignificant, is engaged in some decisive and immediate pursuit of a goal." 
 
What is your goal? In the name of who or what do you stand?
 
Our tradition tells us that so much rests upon our Shem Tov, our good name. 
 
What name will you be known by?
 
And what values do you want to be continued?
 
In your name.
 
Shabbat shalom, v'kol tuv (with all goodness)
 
Rabbi Yisrael Huberman

Tue, June 2 2020 10 Sivan 5780