In one verse, this week’s Torah portion reminds us of the great significance the Jewish tradition places on names: “And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham for I make you the father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:5)
With the addition of just one letter, at the age of ninety-nine, Abram becomes Abraham and his transformation to the father of many nations is confirmed. At the same time, Abraham is not the only biblical figure whose name is changed. Sarai becomes Sara; Jacob becomes Israel. Joseph, Joshua and Esther all experience name changes. From these models, a long-standing custom emerged to introduce a name change after a grave illness or other life-changing moment.
So important is choosing a name that rabbinic midrash teaches that when parents name a child, they experience a small piece of prophecy for from one’s name comes his/her destiny. We are born into a particular family with a particular history and with a particular set of parents who hold hopes and dreams for our future. As one is named, so too is his/her reputation. This is, what is meant in the Book of Samuel “Kshem ken hu – like his name so is he.” So, Ashkenazic Jews name children after those no longer living, while Sephardic Jews name children after the living – both hoping and praying that each child will be endowed with the positive traits and strong image as the one for whom she/he is named.
In the end, we create our own name by what we do in the world, the way we act, the people we touch, the values we manifest. It is up to each one of us to be worthy of the name we have been given – to create a good reputation, to live in kindness, compassion, and commitment, and to remember the lesson of the book Ecclesiastes: "A good name is better than fragrant oil.”
Ken yehi ratzon – so may it be.