I am a lover of names. Names are portals into connection, to people and places, across time and space. Names tell stories about who we are, who we've been, and who we might become. One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi at Kol Tzedek is helping people choose the right name, for themselves and their babies. As someone who has changed my name more than once, I can relate to the power of our names to call our truest selves into existence. For a long time I have understood the names I no longer go by as "dead names." But that has felt like a microaggression against my younger selves. I recently learned that we can instead say they are our "caterpillar names" - the names that invoke our molted lives.
In Jewish tradition, taking on a new name is an act of teshuva (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16b). It has the power to call us home. It is at once an evolution and an act of return in the spiral of time. In this week's parsha, Lech Lecha, our mythic ancestors experience the power of being renamed as Abram sheds his caterpillar name and becomes Abraham and Sarai, Sarah.
God says to Abraham:
אֲנִי הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם: וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם כִּי אַב־הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ:
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
In fact, says Torah, names have the power to call us into sacred relationship, into covenant itself. [It is worth noting that according to the rabbis, we are to refer to Sarah and Abraham by their new names even when referring to events that precede these names (B.T. Brachot 13a).]
And it is not just us humans that are known by many names. Early on in God's relationship with Abraham, God introduces Godself saying, "I am El Shaddai," and later, when Moses asks God how he should refer to God when convincing the people of his holy mission, God says, "ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be what I will be." Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes, "When asked for God's name, it's as if God refuses to be defined by any one name. Instead, God insists on the ability to continue to reinvent Godself, to be a God called by many names with many identities that cannot be defined by just one. I will be what I will be. I will keep defining and redefining myself. I cannot be limited by one name."
As we each hear the call of Lech Lecha and go forth in our own lives, extending beyond our comfort zones, in search of our purpose and our path, may we each have the courage to be who we will be. To allow ourselves to contain multitudes. And to honor the names others ask to be called by. In this way, may we merit to see others as they really are and be seen for who we really are.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.