Do you know your royal Jewish name? This past Shabbos in England, Prince William—heir to the throne—and his wife Kate Middleton were was blessed with a new daughter. The world media was ablaze guessing what royal name would be given to the new princess. And now we know: Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge. How did they arrive at this name? Charlotte, the feminine form of Charles, is William’s father’s name; Elizabeth is the name of both William’s grandmother and great-grandmother; and Diana, of course, is for William’s deceased mother. It’s seems like a combination of Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions as they named after both the living and the dead. Let me ask you again, what’s your royal Jewish name? Yes, each and every one of us carries a royal Jewish name.
My friend Rabbi Fred Davidow (The American Rabbi, Spring 1999, p. 68) once shared with me this great story:
A Jewish mother sends her son off to his 1st day in school. With the customary pride and precautionary advice she says: “So, bubbeleh, you’ll be a good boy and obey the teacher? And you won’t make noise, bubbeleh, and you’ll be very polite and play nice with the other children, bubbeleh. And when it’s time to come home, you’ll button up warm, so you won’t be cold, bubbeleh. And you’ll be careful crossing the street and come right come, bubbeleh.”
Finally off goes the little boy. When he returns that afternoon, his mother hugs and kisses him and asks, “So bubbeleh, did you like school? Did you make new friends, bubbeleh? Did you learned something, bubbeleh?
“Yeah,” said the boy. “I learned my name is David!”
Today’s Torah reading mentions the case of 2 men who were fighting—one of them cursing Gd. It doesn’t identify these men except to tells us the name of the mother of the one who cursed Gd—Shlomit bat Divri from the tribe of Dan. Why mention her name and only her name? The answer to this question is a great Mother’s Day message. The Torah mentions only the mother’s name to point out how significant a mother is—that it is the mother who implants character, a sense of respect for others and a reverence for Gd in her child. The Torah mentions that her name was Shlomit from shalom, “peace,” to teach us that one doesn’t receive his/her name by chance, that one’s name is an indication of one’s essence and potential. Shlomit had the ability to raise her son as a lover of peace, but she failed.
Why do you and I need a Jewish name? Let’s go a little deeper. A name gives one an identity. Why do I need a Jewish name? On a most basic level, a Jewish name is the keystone of a Jewish identity. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) on today’s parsha mentions that although more than 200 years of exile and slavery had all but assimilated the Children of Israel to the pagan society of Egypt, they remained a distinct entity. How? Because despite those circumstances they always maintained their Jewish names, their holy language and their modest dress and, therefore, merited this miraculous redemption. They maintained their attachment to their “true selves” by remaining loyal to their royal Jewish names.
What’s so significant about a name? In the 1st chapter of the Torah we see that Gd created the world with speech. 10 times in the creation story we see passages like, “And Gd said, ‘Let there be light,’” or “And Gd said, ‘Let there be a firmament.’” Kabbalah teaches that the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are really the spiritual building blocks of all created reality and that the name of a thing in Hebrew—the holy language—represents the combination of sacred letters that reflect the distinctive characteristics and the purpose and role towards which it was created.
The Hebrew word for “name” is sheym, spelled shin mem. These 2 letters are in the center of the word neshama, “soul,” because the soul, or essence, of any human being is contained in his/her name. So your Jewish name is a key to your specific mission to why you were created, what you are here for. Your Jewish name is really your spiritual call sign embodying your unique character traits and Gd-given gifts. Something like people try to do today with the names they use for FaceBook or their hashtag handles on twitter. We all have that unique character trait that is reflected in our Jewish name.
Ideally, we should use our Jewish names all the time—not just when we’re called up to the Torah or when prayers like a Mishebeyrach for the sick are offered on our behalf. Your Jewish name functions as a conduit, a channel for spiritual energies from Gd to go into your soul and into your body. That’s why an unconscious person will often respond and be revived when one calls his/her name. According to Jewish custom, a critically ill person sometimes is given an additional Jewish name—somewhat like a spiritual by-pass operation to funnel in fresh spiritual energy around their existing name and into their body. So with the influx of spiritual energy with a new name, the body is given a renewed vigor to heal itself.
How does one get a Jewish name? Jewish boys are given their names at their circumcision and girls at the Torah shortly after their birth. Your name is selected by your parents who usually name you after a dear loved one who has passed or with a name they are fond of. Either way, Kabbalah teaches that your name is not given by chance—that when parents name a child they actually experience a minor prophecy because somehow that child’s destiny becomes wrapped up in the combination of the sacred Hebrew letters that make up his/her Jewish name.
A girl gets her name in shule in the presence of the Torah as a Mishebeyrach prayer is offered by the rabbi to bless the mother who needs healing and “her newborn daughter whose name we declare to be”…and the father provides the name that the parents have chosen. Granting a name in the presence of the Torah infuses that name with blessing. A boy receives his name at his Bris when he enters the Covenant of Abraham and that infuses his name with blessing. If your parents never gave you a Jewish name or if you’re a convert you can select any Jewish name that resonates with you. Chances are you too will select a name that reflects your destiny.
The Bible (Samuel I 25:25) says Kishmo keyn hu, “As his name, so is he.” Does this mean that we’re predestined to play out roles handed to us by our parents while we were infants? Is our free will limited by our names?
Of course not, as we see in our parsha with Shlomit, whose name means, “peaceful,” but she raised a son that was anything but peaceful. Judaism is emphatic that we have free will and Shlomit chose her path despite her name. Yet it is possible that our names can accurately describe us because they are predictions of our potential futures. 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—it’s a moment of prophecy.
Kabbalah teaches that after death every soul will be asked, “Do you know your royal Jewish name?” Why? because your Jewish name is your royal mission given to you by Gd. What we really will be asked is whether we lived up to the ideals and potential personified in our Jewish name. Each of us has a unique and special role in perfecting this world and our Jewish name expresses that role and the core of our Jewish soul. Let me ask you one more time, “Do you know your royal Jewish name?” Make sure you remember it every day, and in doing so, Gd will bless you. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis