Shaarei Shamayim

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As you know, this week I went to Miami for the baby-naming of my new granddaughter from my son Joshua and his wife Chavi, Aliya Miriam. She is so good and so beautiful—the most precious baby the whole world along with Lea and Shmuli’s new girl Shevy in Phoenix. Aliya is a very unusual name and so names were very much on my mind this week. Coincidently I read an article the other day in the magazine, The Week, which I subscribe to, about names. It asks the question, “Do names matter?” and goes on to say:

            We don’t choose the names we carry, but they have an immense and often hidden effect on our lives…Though we don’t choose them, our names are badges bearing information about our class, education level, and ethnic origin or at least those of our parents. Scientific studies have shown that the world makes different assumptions about a boy named Tyrone than it does about one named Philip, and while those assumptions are often wrong, they can have a considerable influence on the course of a life.

A name can even exert unconscious influence over a person’s own choices. Some scientific researchers contend that there are disproportionately large numbers of dentists named Dennis and lawyers named Lauren, and that it’s not purely an accident that Dr. Douglas Hart of Scarsdale, N.Y., chose cardiology or that the Greathouse family of West Virginia runs a real-estate firm. To some degree, this has always been true: The Romans had the expression nomen est omen, or “name is destiny.”…Research indicates that people are unconsciously drawn to things, people, and places that sound like their own names.

Judaism takes this concept much further. The Hebrew word for “name” is sheym—spelled, shin, mem. These 2 Hebrew letters are center 2 letters of the word neshama, “soul.” In other words, the soul or essence of any human being is contained in his or her name.

  • And so when Abram found Gd his name was changed to Abraham, meaning, “the father of a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 17:5). A change of identity requires a change of identification. 
  • Jacob, whose name came from the root word meaning “heel”—which so perfectly suited someone whose approach to the problems of life was always to run—came to realize that he must fight rather than flee. It was then that an angel informed him: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with Gd and man and prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29).
  • Is it a coincidence that the names Moshe and Hashem are composed of the same 3 letters— hey, shin, mem for Gd, or backwards, mem, shin, hey for Moshe?
  • If a person is critically ill, Jewish law suggests a powerful last resort is to change the name of the individual in order to alter the evil decree. Adding the name Chayim, which means “life,” is not uncommon. A new name is a new person.
  • When the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt, the Midrash makes it clear it was in merit of 3 things that Gd redeemed them—“they did not change their names, their language, and their mode of dress.” 1st and foremost was that they weren’t ashamed of who they were—even in the face of persecution—and maintained their Jewish names.
  • It is our custom to name children after those whom we deeply admire and seek to memorialize. To link a newborn with someone from the past is to bring together 2 souls in an inseparable bond of life.

Let’s go even deeper. Mystics teach a remarkable tradition: At death every person is asked his or her name when they come for judgment. Why? Because your name is your mission. What we are really being asked is whether we lived up to our mission in life and to the potential given to us at birth.

A name defines a person. Remarkably, the Bible says Kishmo keyn hu, “As his name, so is he” (Samuel I 25:25). Talmudic sages offer countless examples of the connection between the names of biblical characters and their actions. Does that mean then that we are predestined to live our lives beyond our control? Are we doomed to play out roles handed to us by our parents while we were infants? Is our free will limited by our names? Of course that’s impossible. Judaism emphasizes the principle of freedom of choice. Yet our names can perfectly describe us because they tell us our potential and are, thereby, predictions of our future.

What makes parents decide on one particular name above all others? At a certain moment it suddenly becomes clear that this is who their child is and no other name will do. The decision, according to our tradition, is guided by a divine spirit—one of the very last remaining powers of prophecy to persist in our time. Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote a book that wasn’t titled, Your Name Is Your Destiny, like the Roman phrase, but, Your Name Is Your Blessing. It describes it this way: It is not our name that forces us to be what we are. It is what we are that transmits itself in a profoundly prophetic manner to those entrusted with the holy task of choosing our names. Indeed, every parent is a prophet at the time of naming a child. It is a remarkable gift from Gd. But it is also an awesome responsibility.

There is a mystical tradition that teaches us that every person’s name can be found in the Torah—sometimes it’s clearly written and sometimes it’s encoded. And if you look deeper with the aid of gematria—numerology, where ever letter has a numerical equivalent—you will find that every person has a word in the Torah linked to his or her name that shares the same number total. That word is, in the most profound sense, the key to a person’s name. It represents not simply what you are called, but your calling—your life’s mission and purpose. And every name also has a phrase also with the same number total that is an extension of the idea already implicit in the simple translation of the name as well as the gematria word corresponding to it in the Torah.

I’ll give you a couple of examples in a minute. But 1st let me answer a good question. Are there words in the Torah with the same numerical equivalent that are negative? Of course! As the sages make clear, the Torah begins with the letter bet, 2, to indicate the duality of everything created on earth. With free will, we may turn earth into heaven or hell; possessed with almost divine powers we may create sacred sanctuaries or build crematoria and weapons can cause untold death and destruction. Each of us has amazing potential for goodness and creativity and growth and each of us has significant potential for evil. It’s up to us to access the blessings inherent in our names.

Let me give you an example from this week’s parsha. Of Betzalel, who was appointed the chief architect for the construction of the Mishkan, the Talmud (Brachot 55a) says that he did more than Moses had instructed him; he intuited what Gd had commanded Moses but had not yet told him. The Talmud explains, Betzalel means, B’tzeyl, “in the shadow,” Keyl, “of Gd.” He must have been in Gd’s shadow as Gd spoke to Moses. Now the numerical equivalent of Betzalel is 153. His matching Torah word, according to Rabbi Blech, would then be b’chipazon, “in haste;” his matching phrase is, neh-ehman hu, “he is faithful;” and his blessing, Rabbi Blech deduces, therefore, is: “he will quickly carry out his promises.”   

Putting all this together adds up to a blessing for every name. Of course it’s daring to presume to predict the future. Yet if the name, the gematria, the Torah word, and the equivalent number phrase shout out a message of potential, we ought to be wise enough at least to listen to its words and its meaning.

My new granddaughter Aliya’s name, for example, means, “to ascend, to go up.” Her gematria is 115. Her matching word that adds up to 115 is chazak, “strong, steadfast.” Her matching phrase that adds up to 115 is ima chachma, “wise mother.” Her blessing then, according to Rabbi Blech, is, “she will be strong, steadfast and a source of wisdom.” May she grow to be a source of nachas to her family as she brings blessing to the world…and, as her name indicates, may she elevate us all. Amen!

                                                 Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis



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