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Parashat Lech L’cha 5773 — 10/24/2012

Parashat Lech L’cha 5773 — 10/24/2012

As for Me, this is My covenant with you, and you shall be a father of a multitude of nations; your name shall no longer be called Avram [av-Aram, leader of Aram = modern Syria], but your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations [av hamon goyim, the R from his original name remained – Rashi] … (17:4-5)

R. Huna bar Rav Yosef said: Even change of name and good deeds nullify evil decrees.  That changing of the name is effective in this regard, we learn from Abraham, as the verse states Your name shall no longer be called Abram, … (Bereishit Rabbah 44:13)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2).

I always knew my Yiddish name, but I didn’t learn my Hebrew name (Rafael) until I was almost 50 years old, and asked my aunt what it was.  Once I discovered my name, I assumed that I had been named after my grandmother’s brother who had recently died, but when I mentioned to my Rabbi that I had just found out that my name was Rafael, the first question he asked was whether or not I had been sick as a child.  Rafael is the name of the angel of healing; the root rafa means healing, as in rofe’ = physician.  It is traditional that a seriously ill person is given a new, or an additional name, in the hope that the decree will be nullified, to use the Rabbinic terminology.  (As an aside, my sister recently came across a death notice for our great-uncle, and he apparently died several months after I was born and named, so the mystery continues!)

Another circumstance in which one changes one’s name or adopts a new one is upon conversion to Judaism.  Even if one already has a Biblical name, one takes a new name, to signify that with conversion one has become a new person.  And then, there are some times when people just feel their old name no longer “fits” and they adopt one that’s more amenable to who they feel themselves to be.

In our Parashah, we have two name changes ordained by Gd: Avram becomes Avraham and his wife Sarai [“my princess”] becomes Sarah [“princess over the whole world”].  These name changes occur when Avraham is given the covenant of brit milah (circumcision), and it is right after performing the circumcision on himself and all the males of his household that Avraham and Sarah finally are able, at 99 and 89 years of age respectively, to conceive a child.

Why should this technique be effective?  In fact, where did anyone even come up with the idea of changing names to avert some negative consequences?  To begin to understand these questions we have to understand what a name is in our tradition.  In Parashat Bereishit, we find all the newly-created animals were paraded before Adam, and whatever the man called each living soul, that remained its name (2:19, Artscroll’s translation).  Somehow Adam was able to perceive the essential nature of each animal and was able to attach to it a name that in some way reflects that essential character.  Thus names are not merely conventional labels for things that we need to communicate with one another, but, at least in the Hebrew language, they actually encode what their referents are on some deep level.

Perhaps this can be understood by an analogy with modern Physics.  Modern physics has discovered that all of the “substances” that we see around us are composed of a few different types of atoms, and the atoms are composed of a smaller number of subatomic particles.  Each of those particles is actually not a little ball of “stuff,” but rather a wave of an underlying field.  That is, an electron is simply a mode of vibration of the field of “electron-ness” as it were, and so for all the other “particles” – they are all vibrations of their fields.  Now we know that particles interact with one another, that is how larger structures – atoms, molecules, things and people – are formed.  Physicists hope to be able to show that in fact there is not a multiplicity of fields, but rather one underlying, unified field, that vibrates in various different modes to appear as all the different particles and their interactions.  Thus everything we see, everything we think of as concrete, is really a complex pattern of vibration of a completely abstract field, which, in its essential nature, is transcendent to all the things to which it gives rise.

Apparently the spiritual realm operates in a very similar way.  There is an underlying, transcendental field that is at the basis of all creation, and it has many modes of vibration.  Whatever we perceive is a complex mode of vibration of this underlying reality.  The sounds of speech of course are vibrations of the air; why, in one language, they should be able to mimic or model those modes of vibration I don’t know.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Gd created human beings with the quality of being self-aware; the hallmark of this self-awareness is our ability to speak – to parse our surroundings and communicate with other human beings.  This is reflected in Onkelos’ famous translation of the verse (2:7) and the man became a living soul as and the man became a speaking soul.

If the name reflects the essence, then a name change must reflect a change in essence, and I believe this is what happens with all the name changes we find in Tanach.  It is significant that Avraham’s and Sarah’s name changes occur after Avraham fulfills the commandment of brit milah.  Before this he and Sarah were unable to conceive children together (although Avraham was able to have a child, Yishmael, with Hagar).  Now they will have Yitzchak (in the next Parashah) who will be the one through whom the tradition of knowledge of Gd will pass.  Somehow, freeing his reproductive organ from the covering in which it was bound, released some potential in Avraham (and somehow also in Sarah) that was, up to this point, concealed in potentiality.

Perhaps this can give us an understanding of the theory behind changing the name to avert negativity.  There is a principle in Jewish thought called midah k’neged midah – measure for measure.  It asserts that whatever is happening to you now is a result of your previous actions.  The purpose of what you are experiencing is to purify your soul so that you don’t have to have this kind of experience any more.  In disciplining children, it’s called “natural consequences” and the parent explains how the behavior leads to the result.  It’s unfortunate that as adults we don’t have someone telling us “you are experiencing this result because you did/said/thought such-and-such.”  Part of our growth in self-awareness is to be able to figure these things out by ourselves!

Now in many cases the adjustment we may need to make is small; we grow through incremental changes.  Sometimes, however, we are faced with a serious crisis, perhaps a severe illness, and incremental change will not be sufficient.  We have to go through a personality overhaul.  When this happens, ideally, we actually become a different person, and as such, a new name, one that represents our new essence, is now appropriate.  Of course in this case the change in essence precedes the change in name.  Apparently, however, sometimes changing the name is used as a technique to change the essence.  It almost seems like the tail wagging the dog actually, and I’m not sure how it would work.  Perhaps on the psychological level the new name serves as a model and inspiration for the person to live up to.  Perhaps if the new name is given by a great spiritual luminary the very act of renaming readjusts something in the afflicted person’s being.

Whatever the mechanics may be, once the personality changes it may no longer be necessary for the affliction to continue.  In fact, it may also be that other consequences for similar past actions may no longer be necessary.  When those consequences come calling, it’s almost as if they don’t find the original person any more, so profoundly has he changed.  And if those consequences do come to us, we have changed, grown, expanded, and what might have been a crushing blow to us when we were on a lower spiritual level, may shrink in relation to our new status to the point that the results are not so severe at all.

Ultimately, it is our actions that make a name for us.  It behooves us all to make sure that our actions are in accord with Gd’s Will so that our name will be a blessing both in heaven and on earth.