What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Lech L’cha | Genesis 12:1-17:27

We should not be surprised when God promises Abraham (while still Abram): “I will make your name great.” Abram is already wealthy, with pretty much everything he might want. True, he lacks children, and God will grant him those eventually, but meanwhile, God promises a great name. Why not? What do you give someone who has everything?

What complicates things is that our great sage Hillel warns, “A name made great is a name destroyed” (Avot 1:13). How can a great name, then, be Abraham’s reward?

In part the answer comes from the language Hillel employs for “made great”: the Aramaic n-g-d, meaning “stretched out, extended.” My rabbinic school teacher John J. Tepfer, zihrono livraha, used this example: “Suppose Shakespeare had received doctorates from Cambridge and Oxford, earned and honorary, and begun signing his name, ‘Dr. William Shakespeare, PhD, DD.’ Would his name have been any more glorious than it already is?”

At least Shakespeare would have merited the degrees. Others’ names get enlarged beyond what their bearers are worth. The Maharal thus links Hillel’s adage to people who blatantly seek power by building reputations for evil. Think of Tomas de Torquemada, medieval Spain’s first Grand Inquisitor, or Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian whom few people ever heard of until he became a Nazi collaborator, and whose surname became a common noun meaning “traitor.” Sefas Emes includes people who actually serve God, but just to establish their names. They may do good things, but their lack of integrity will be their downfall. 

The great name granted Abram, Rashi tells us, was nothing like that. It consisted in the addition of the letter heh, making Abram into AbraHam. The letter heh is one of the ways we write the name of God. Its addition to “Abram” made his name (and him) more godly. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, also gets this gift — she becomes SaraH. Kishmo ken hu, say the rabbis — “People become like their names.” The midrash explains: “In times past,” God said to Abraham, “I alone could confer blessing. Now that I am part of your name, you can do it too.” 

A name made great is a name destroyed — unless, of course, its greatness lies in outfitting the bearer to bless others, just like God. 

These past High Holy Days, we read Un’taneh Tokef, a prayer we associate with reminders of how paltry we are relative to God. We are but dust and ashes, while God is the Judge, Jury, and Prosecuting Attorney in our court of last resort. God’s years are boundless, while we are mortals, doomed to die. But Rabbi Margaret Wenig points out the prayer’s surprising conclusion: “You [God] named us after you” (sh’meinu karata vishmecha). We are all like Abraham: God’s name is part and parcel of our own.

If so, we all can be a blessing to others. And in so doing, even our deaths are not the final word. When we die, people will say of us (as I said of my teacher), zihronam livraca, “remembering us is a blessing,” because however long we lived and whatever our worldly accomplishments, the only thing that matters is the blessing we added to their lives. We are mortal, but we transcend mortality by a name made great like God’s. 

read more: