Our character defines our names
Remember the TV icon “Cheers,” the place where “everybody knows your name”? Less acknowledged are two prior lines: “where you can see our troubles are all the same” and “where people know [that] people are all the same.”
There you have it: the “Cheers” version of our time. We are bereft of natural communities like extended families (where, as Robert Frost says, “they have to take you in”). Without such solace, our problems “drive us to drink” (so to speak) — to bars, that is, where we feel better, because we see that “our troubles are all the same”; that “we are all the same”; and that people still know our names.
Torah is not “Cheers,” but Judaism too thinks that we are ultimately all the same. Yes, God made each of us unique, but we are all descended from Adam and Eve (Maimonides, Commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). It agrees too that our names matter. It differs, however, in noting we have many names, and the one that counts is not the one bestowed on us at birth but the one we make for ourselves thereafter. We are graced with free will (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 5:1) and can conscientiously choose to live so that our names are associated with godliness.
Judaism is, therefore, less like “Cheers” and more like Socrates, for whom “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Torah is the Jewish mirror for self-examination; as are penitence and prayer. The Rabbis awakened each day to all three, hoping for a life beyond shame, a life with honor, and a life where we do not succumb to the evil inclination, which is like yeast that puffs us up with our own self-importance (Berachot 17a).
“Cheers” is a cozy retreat from life to a place where “everybody knows your name.” Judaism embraces life, as the means to earn a name worth being known by.
We call that “character.”
“Character” is the topic of Tractate Avot, mandatory reading for this period of “counting the days” (sefirah) between Passover and Shavuot. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But being for myself, what am I?” (1:14); we pursue our self-interest, but at what cost? Similarly, “A name made great is a name destroyed” (1:13); the pursuit of fame and fortune is useless. Instead, we should avoid spite, profanity, envy, and arrogance (2:15, 3:15, 4:4-5, 28); see the best in others (4:3); value truth, justice, friendliness, and peace (1:15, 18); and personify humanity at its best, especially when those around us personify it at its worst (2:6).
Character forms slowly and is not changed easily. God didn’t reveal the Torah the minute the Israelites left Egypt, because slaves necessarily develop the debilitating character of docility, fear, and pessimism. God risked revelation only years later, at Sinai; and when Israel defaulted into the idolatry of the golden calf, God waited a whole generation more before admitting them to the Promised Land.
But character can change with persistent effort over time, and that, says Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, is what the sefirah is for: the cleansing of character. Normally, he points out — for new moons and sabbatical years — calendrical counting is entrusted to the beit din, the rabbinical court that represents all of Israel. Not so the sefirah. The commandment to count the days, he says, falls on each of us individually.
The same is true of the Ten Commandments, the Lubavitcher continues. They are even addressed to each of us in the singular, because basic moral obligation is central to individual character. Each of us can acquire a good name, but only on our own (Avot 2:8).
What’s in a name, then? Everything! Not the name we are given, but the name we achieve, our mark of character. From Passover to Shavuot we get seven weeks of counting, seven weeks to commit ourselves to achieving “the crown of a good name,” which is better than the crown of royalty itself (Avot 4:17).
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.