We all have known people who could endow another with a nickname that stuck. Perhaps, you are such a person, or have been the recipient of such a person. A namer must recognize the essence of the person being named, and be able to have the nickname reflect this core. If it doesn’t, the nickname will not stick.
Have you ever considered the power of a name? When parents name a child, they hope that it will describe their boy or girl. Perhaps, the name belonged to a departed member of the family, and the parents are trying to perpetuate the values of that person.
When my father fell ill as a boy, he was given an extra name, a middle name. This was done to confound the Malach HaMawvet, the Angel of Death. By calling him by a slightly different name, his mother was hoping to alter his fate.
When the relatively new crime of identity theft occurs, the victims speak about not only their pecuniary loss, but the eerie feeling that someone, somewhere, without their approval, is acting in their name. Their very identity, the way they perceive themselves, is threatened by the unauthorized use of their name.
We can only imagine the feeling of those who have been consigned to the Department of Justice’s Witness Protection Program. Not only must they change their location and even sometimes their appearance, they must leave also their name behind. I recall Mr. Homer Simpson undergoing this transformation, and the baseball hat he wore with the words, Witness Protection Program, proudly emblazoned on the visor!
Have you ever met a person by the very same name as you, first and last? I recently did, and felt strange. Was this person like me, were we linked in some way beyond our names? I must admit that I felt a bit diminished to have my namesake right there-almost like I was less special. I wonder if he felt the same.
So, what is the power of a name, and from where does it derive?
In Breishis, we read about the first human, Adam. God Himself gave him that name, based on the fact that he had been created from adama, earth, dust. God’s charge to him was to tend the grounds of Eden and to hold dominion over all the living creatures. Part of the job was to name all the animals. We are told that Adam did so, endowing each living thing with a name that reflected their essence, their true nature.
We can see by this biblical account that giving a name is power being exercised by the namer, and, if it is an apt name, it can be a statement about the person or animal being named.
We have, from Torah, the familiar story of the creation of the first woman, someone to be a companion for Adam. We see, interestingly, that she is nameless for the first part of the narrative. After the pronouncement of the curses that will befall society because of their sin, toil by the sweat of his brow, an earth that will produce thorn and thistle, the pain of childbirth, and eventual death for all, Adam seems to take the dire news in stride. In the verse immediately following God’s verdict, Adam does not lament his fate. He continues developing civilization exactly where he left off. He continued to classify all living things and naming them. Then, he does one more thing: He names his wife.
“Adam called his wife Chava because she was the mother of all life.” Is it suitable for Adam to name his wife Chava immediately following the curse of death? What are we to make of this message from the Torah?
Adam heard the curses directed at himself, his wife and humanity for eternity. His reaction was not one of scorn or criticism. He named his wife Chava, derived from the word for life. He viewed the woman whom he had once blamed for his downfall with a different perspective. He saw only the dawn of life, and named her so. His name for her is a triumph of hope over despair.
After we experience tragedy and defeat, there is enough blame to share and spread. Will we do that, or will we, like Adam, pick up the pieces and cherish the beauty of what is left? OO’Varcharta B’Chaim. As the Torah tells us, Choose life!
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman