How We Acquire Our Names

Bemidbar By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 18, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

I am not the same person I was last year when we read the book of Numbers in the synagogue. The changes in my life reveal details in the texture of the Torah that had gone unnoticed before. My growth is a key to the unfolding of the beauty of the tapestry.

This week’s parasha opens with yet another census, the third since Israel left Egypt. What we treasure we count often, says Rashi, the great medieval commentator, and so God had Israel numbered immediately after the Exodus, again after the calamity of the Golden Calf, and now when the divine presence is about to descend on the camp. The census is to be by tribes and, therefore, the book opens with a list of the 12 tribal chieftains. I confess that I have never tarried on that list of 12 names. Biblical lists do not make easy reading. But that has now dramatically changed for me with regard to this particular list.

And that is because just two weeks ago my daughter Rebecca in Chicago gave birth to fraternal twins, her first children. At the bris one week later, their joyful parents named the little girl Ada and her brother, Nathaniel. Both are biblical names: Ada meaning “dawn” or perhaps “jewel,” and Nathaniel, “God gave.” Ada was one of the two wives of Lamech, the father of No·ah, and Nathaniel appears in our parasha as the chieftain of the tribe of Issachar (Numbers 1:8). While both names allude to deceased members of our family on both sides (as is the Ashkenazi custom), they also forge a very personal link to two remote figures in the Torah. Naming our children gives them a sense of their own space, a framework for their lives. These two names surely bespeak the desire to join the destiny of the family with the destiny of the nation.

In the Bible, names are always more than pretty sounds. They give voice to our most deep felt sentiments. The name Ada resonates either with joy over the prospects of a new life or gratitude for a gift of supreme value. Nathaniel associates awe and wonder at the miracle of birth with the palpable presence of God. Biblical names are an echo of overwhelming emotions at the moment and fervent expectations for the future.

This bris of my new grandson took place in a swirl of continuity and discontinuity. The name Nathaniel, of course, pointed to the past. So did the mohel who had performed the circumcision of Nathaniel’s father some 29 years before. Indeed, in his illustrious career, he has done more than 16,000 ritual circumcisions and was definitely the fastest mohel in the west! Nathaniel also wore the kippa which I wore at my own brit milah in November 1935 in Hanover, Germany. My father, a collector by nature and a man of lively interest in family history, had kept the kippa, and we used it again at the bris of my son Jonathan in 1963 and the birth of his son Emanuel in 1993.

But for all its redolent continuity, that precious kippa also symbolizes a profound measure of discontinuity. The kippa had been made for me by a Jewish artist in Hanover, Fanny Dessau, who was very close to my father and would often take one of his sermons and work it into a colorful pictorial representation. I have more than 100 items of her religious art still in my possession. On the kippa she etched my Hebrew name in bold block characters – Yitzhak the son of our teacher R. Eliyahu. That is the point of my narrative: my German and Hebrew names diverge. They are not identical. “Ismar” is German–Jewish equivalent of Isaac (Yitzhak). It is an uncommon name and I have known only a few German Jews who share it with me. How it came to be mine is another story. To be noted here is the obvious fact that it comes from the era of emancipation when Jews were ready to submerge their identity to gain admission into gentile society. Thus, Hirsch became Heinrich; Lipman, Leopold; Moshe, Moritz; Abraham, Albert; and Isaac, Ismar. The prevailing strategy was to restrict all expressions of Jewishness to the privacy of the home or the synagogue. In public one appeared as German as anyone else. There were a good many synagogues that saw fit to discard the Hebrew name entirely: one was called to the Torah (read without trop or musical cantillation) by one’s secular name.

By the end of 1935, emancipation in Nazi Germany had come to an abrupt and brutal end. Every Jew left in the country would soon be compelled to add the name Abraham or Sarah to his or her German name. The effort to compartmentalize ourselves had failed both politically and psychologically.

This is the significance of the names of my children and grandchildren. Their Hebrew names are their English names. They need not be divided personalities in order to live in two worlds. Post–war America is not pre–war Germany. In this great democracy of vast individual freedom and ever more equal opportunity, Jewish emancipation is complete and secure. To be overt and consciously Jewish in this unprecedented setting imbues modernity with religious values and constraints and Judaism with new sensibilities.

The midrash teaches that each of us acquires three names in the course of a lifetime. The first is the one we are given at birth by our parents. The second is the one that others bestow on us as they get to know us. And the third is the one we achieve on our own, and it is the most important of the three. We know this to be the case from Bezalel whom God selected to construct the Tabernacle, as it is written: “See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel (Exodus 35:30),” that is, on the basis of the good name which Bezalel had acquired for himself.

What a wonderfully modern text, a veritable celebration of human self–discovery. The only name that really counts is the one that does not come our way passively. And yet, I would contend that the well–chosen name given at birth can serve as wellspring and vision. We all come from somewhere. The more we can bring with us to the task of turning our lives into a moral exemplar or a work of art, the more of a blessing we shall become. Without the building block of the first name, the third name won’t amount to much. The challenge is to integrate our past into our individuality, to make it work for us.

My prayer is not only that Ada and Nathaniel will realize in their lives the richness of their Hebrew names, but also that their Jewish legacy will be their lodestar.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Bemidbar are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.