In one of my favorite plays, two young people meet at a party and fall in love at first glance. But it turns out their parents have been enemies for years, and her parents would have him killed if they knew he was even present in the room, let alone courting their precious daughter…
Neither of them knows the other’s name for awhile, and when they learn it, both realize the challenges they are up against… Anyone know the play?
That night, she climbs out on her balcony and utters some of The most famous words in the English language…
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo…
And then she says,
O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
What do you think? Does it make sense?
So when I was growing up, I had many names. My “official” nickname was Merry, like in Christmas. My mother called me Digitalis – which I later learned was a heart medicine – she was telling me I was good for her heart.
Making the change from Merry to Meredith when I was 19 was a very big change, and indeed, my family still struggles with it, decades later… It’s more grown-up. More cultured – indeed Meredith means “goddess of the sea” – not a particularly Jewish name, but one I liked, as a lover of the sea…
My daughter, Olya, has been called by 3 names – well, way more, but just based on her birth name… Each one is just enough different to describe a different person, almost. Her name means “holy” in Russian. For someone with her beautiful soul, that makes sense to me.
What about you? Do you know who you were named for? Do you know what your name means? Have you changed what people call you? If so, why?
This week, Sam and I watched The King’s Speech again on TV. I’m an Anglophile, and I love Colin Firth, and I love movies about people overcoming adversity… so a perfect movie for me… I was struck this time by the moment when Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister of England during the second World War, asked the Duke of York what he would be called when he became king – certainly not Albert (the name his parents gave him)… Maybe George, like his father…
Juliet was wrong: What’s in a name matters.
Which brings me to the Torah portion. We are in Vaera, the second parasha of the second book, the book Shemot, or Exodus. We are already slaves to Pharaoh, Moses has already met God at the burning bush, and now they are discussing Moses’ new job as redeemer. Moses is scared, for oh, so many reasons. He has a speech impediment, or blockage of the tongue. He fled Egypt 40 years before, after accidentally killing one of his grandfather’s slavemasters. He doesn’t think anyone will believe him. How is he, a shepherd, to stand up to the Pharaoh?
So one of his questions to God is basically, “Who shall I say sent me?” Who will vouch for me? Who has enough credibility to make them believe redemption is at hand? Who will make Pharaoh tremble in his sandals?
And God offers a perplexing response:
“I am Adonai” – YHWH – the tetragrammaton, the Holy Name that is so holy we don’t even know how to pronounce it anymore, so we use a word that means My Lord and Master.
The Holy One continued and said, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, and made the covenant to them that I mean to honor now. But now I want everyone to call me YHWH.”
We have many names for God in Hebrew:
- El Shaddai – God almighty in some translations – god of breasts in others
- El Elyon – the god of gods
- HaKodesh Baruch Hu –the holy blessed one
- Adonai Tz’va’ot – Lord of Hosts
- Elohim – A generic name for God that speaks to the judgment aspect
- Eloheinu – Our God
- Melech M’lakim – King of Kings
- Av Harachamim – Father of Mercy.
Why so many names?
There is a teaching in the Talmud, that compendium of rabbinic wisdom through 600 CE, that there are 70 faces of God. Because each of us sees holiness, sees divinity, sees the sacred in a different way. If we went around the room and told each other what we see when we look at the face of God, I bet we’d get multiple answers, and maybe more than one from each person, and if we asked again next week, there might be yet another answer or three from each of us.
Throughout our sacred literature, we see over and over that one’s name matters. Leah named each of her children with a specific purpose for them. People’s names changed regularly – Avram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Jacob became Yisrael.
We believe that names matter so much that when we are either very sick or have escaped a calamity, or achieve something, we change or add to our names. Because we think names are a window to our souls, to our very essence.
And so with God.
Rashi, the 11th Century French sage, interpreted this verse by saying that God’s name YHWH, represents God’s attribute of faithfulness, of keeping promises. And the Redeemer wanted to announce the keeping of the promise finally – or at least soon.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a noted contemporary rabbi, teaches that Adonai is the God of transformation: the name first appears in Chapter 2 of Genesis (2:4-5), together with Elohim, to describe the transformative acts that required our partnership:
When Adonai Elohim made earth and heaven—when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because Adonai Elohim had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no human to till the soil.
This is the God that we work together with to make things grow – this is the God of transformation, the God whom we acknowledge at hamotzi – a blessing that is not said over raw grain, but over the finished product of bread, that required the partnership of human and divine. The energy that transforms.
As God uses the four letter unpronounced name, God is expressing the change about to happen, hoping to spark our memories and encourage us to join together in the movement from slavery to freedom, from holding onto our hurts, the chains that bind us, the old patterns of behavior that no longer work for us, from waiting for someone else to liberate us to joining together. We may not be able to do it by ourselves alone, but we can’t expect to do it without exerting ourselves as well… We need that partnership, the energy that transforms.
And so, I pray that we might find that energy together, and redeem ourselves together.
 Romeo and Juliet II, 1:35, 44-51.