Between Us: Let’s Talk About Names

Between Us

This week’s parasha is the first of the Book of Exodus. Shemot – “names” – begins, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…” By listing the names, a strong link is developed between the patriarchs of Genesis and the protagonists of Exodus; from family album to the development of a nation.

Names are crucial. The very first action taken by Adam is the naming of the creatures in the Garden of Eden; a bris or baby-naming establishes the identity of a newborn and creates a powerful connection to the Jewish people and to our families. It is fitting, therefore, that the Exodus story begins with a link to the past as well as the identities of those who will lead us to freedom. Moses is named as the (reluctant) leader and even God reveals his name to Moses through the Burning Bush as “I Am Who I Am”.

Names are an important reflection of the value we place on the individuals around us. Name-calling does exactly the opposite, substituting large group identities in place of individuals and reducing people to a character trait. This past election season and its aftermath has left many of us distressed at the name calling now prevalent in the public sphere and across social media. Read the comments section of any online news article to see “how low” people go. I have heard members of our community engage in this unseemly behavior about fellow Jews, and I have been the target of such language by community members trying to make a point. Today’s inauguration of Donald J. Trump as our 45th President – regardless of one’s politics – is an opportunity for each of us to reflect not only on the extraordinary nature of peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of the United States, but also how we must reject the preponderance of name-calling that has sadly become the norm.

There’s a Midrash which says that we all have three names: the one we’re given, the one we’re called and the one we earn. Let us resolve to earn our individual names and our collective name as a Jewish community by working together for what we stand for: caring for the vulnerable, the poor and the hungry, fighting anti-Semitism and building strong connections with Israel, advocating for the rights of women, minorities, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and those with disabilities and by inspiring the next generation to embrace Jewish life and learning.

That’s a name we should all strive for.