What's in a Name

Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Birkat Hahodesh
Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l

Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l was a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies beginning in 2002.  After his ordination he returned to AJU to teach and mentor other young rabbis.  His commentaries were written during this time.

posted on January 22, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

A tale is told about twins who were born to a poor couple in a small village. The midwife who attended the birth was inexperienced, and even though she tied a thread around the wrist of the first born, in the confusion of the delivery and the cleaning up of the infants, and attending to the mother, who had suffered a difficult labor, by the end of the day, the thread had come off, and no one knew which boy was the elder. After fretting about the situation for a few days, the father finally said, as much to himself as to anyone else, "Well, what does it matter? After all, am I a king, that I have to anoint one of my sons to rule after me? Do I own any estates, that the elder should receive a double portion?" And so saying, he decided to call them both by the name "Twin."

And thus, the two boys grew up. As luck would have it, they were identical twins, and no one except their mother could tell them apart. Alas, their mother never fully recovered from the difficult delivery, and passed away before their fourth birthday. From that day on, the twins were inseparable. Not only because they afforded each other the solace and comfort and love their father was incapable of giving. They were inseparable because their father was a strict master, and held both brothers accountable for any orders given to either one of them, since he couldn't tell them apart. So their only means of avoiding some painful paternal discipline lay in their being in constant communication.

The twins lived together with their father until their sixteenth birthday, whereupon they decided to leave home. They travelled a few days until they came upon a village, where they set about looking for employment. They were hired by a local farmer:

"What are your names?" the farmer asked them, as they rode out to the farm on his wagon.

"Twin," they replied in unison. "Brothers, are you?" asked the farmer. "Twins," they answered. "Twins, indeed, by the look of you. But what are your given names?" "Twin is the only name either of us has ever had," replied one of the brothers. "But how," questioned the farmer, "how do people tell you apart?" "Why should anyone want to tell us apart?" "But you're two separate people," the farmer objected. "How am I supposed to know which one of you is working in the pasture, and which one is feeding the chickens?" "You don't have to know. Just tell us what has to be done, and we'll do it. If we're doing something wrong, just tell whomever you see and it will be fixed."

The farmer saw that he was fighting a losing battle, and decided to try the boys at their word. And sure enough, it worked exactly as they had predicted. It was like having one worker who could be in two places at once. If he saw one of the twins with the cattle and told him that the barn needed cleaning out, as soon as he got to the barn, it was being cleaned out. And the truth is, he couldn't tell for the life of him, whether the same twin who had been tending the cattle raced to clean out the barn, or whether it was the other one cleaning the barn. And, like the boys' father before him, he decided that it really wasn't worth trying to figure it out. "Twin!" he would yell, and one of them would show up, ready to listen to whatever order he had.

Things went along this way for a few months, until the farmer's daughter, Rebecca, returned home from her aunt, where she had been staying for the last half year. Rebecca was about the same age as the twins, and began to spend a lot of time with them. In a short while, she became the first person since their mother who was able to tell them apart. She was no doubt aided in this ability by the fact that she had fallen in love with one of them -a love that was reciprocated.

"Twin," she said one afternoon to the object of her affections, "I can't begin to tell you how much it bothers me that you and your brother have the same name. You and he are different, but I think that the three of us are the only ones in the whole village who know that. I have no way of talking about you, so that people know I'm talking about you, and not Twin."

"What would you have me do, Rebecca?" Twin answered. "Twin is my name - it's who I am."

"It's not your name; it's just a label that a grief-stricken and bitter old man put on you and your brother so that he could summon help. For him, shouting "Twin" was the verbal equivalent of ringing a servant's bell."

"You're right, Rebecca, but you're also wrong. For him it might have been a label, but for me, it's an identity. I'm called Twin, because I am a twin."

"I know you're a twin," cried Rebecca, "but what do I call you when I want you to be a lover, a husband, a father to my children? What do I call you when I want you to be that special you that I've fallen in love with?"

* * * * *

Let's leave the tale at this point. Twin - Rebecca's Twin - has come to a turning point in his life. For those of us on the outside, the solution to their problem is obvious: Twin needs another name.

Now different people react differently to this suggestion. For me, it presents no problem, but my family has a long history of multiple names. My grandfather's name was Beryl, but when he came to America, he changed it to Ben. My father's name was Moishe, and at various times in his life he called himself Morris, Maurice or Moshe, in addition to the Yiddish Moishe. My older brother was named Nachman, but now goes only by Norman. Half the people in my life call me Ronnie (my middle name), and the other half call me Dan (from Daniel, my first name). And my son Joshua has been calling himself Jay since he was fourteen years old.

Now while I can't speak for all the members of my family, for myself, Ronnie and Dan are in a sense different people, or at least different personalities. Dan, the name I went through school with, and the name I use professionally as an accountant, conjures up a somewhat stiffer, more professional, more reserved personality than does Ronnie. Just like Bill Clinton, our 42nd president, is probably a little more reserved than Bubba Clinton, the name he grew up with.

So names are more than mere labels. Names help define who or what we are, and give us meaning and significance. And this applies not just to individuals. "Negroes" and "African Americans" may in fact refer to the same group of people, but the two terms certainly have different socio-political connotations, different meanings. We see this in place names as well: do I refer to the West Bank, or to Judea and Samaria? Go ask the people of Macedonia (either those of the independent country, or those of the Greek province next door), "What's in a name?"

In fact, the idea of a name being tied to a specific identity is so pervasive, that there are formalized rituals of name-changing to mark significant "life-changing" events. Monarchs and Popes assume new names when they ascend to their positions. Nuns take new names when they enter their order, as do Jews by Choice upon their formal conversion. And in Jewish tradition, it is common for people recovering from life-threatening illnesses to take on additional names, such as Chaim or Raphael.

So, where is all this leading, and more to the point, what does this have to do with this week's parsha? Well, the connection to the parsha is really from its very beginning in a fascinating announcement that God makes to Moses: GOD SPOKE TO MOSES AND SAID TO HIM, "I AM THE LORD [YHWH]. I APPEARED TO ABRAHAM, ISAAC, AND JACOB AS EL SHADDAI, BUT I DID NOT MAKE MYSELF KNOWN TO THEM BY MY NAME YHWH." (Exodus 6:2-3, NJPS Translation) Our sages - and in particular, Rashi, the 11th Century French scholar - interpret the above by saying that God's name YHWH, the four letter unpronounced name, represents God's attribute of faithfulness, of keeping promises. God made promises to the patriarchs about making them a mighty nation, and giving them the Holy Land as an inheritance, but they never lived to see those promises fulfilled. It is only now, with Moses, that God is about to fulfill those promises.

However, I think something else is going on. When I first read this sentence, I was struck with the similarity in style between this sentence and one it refers to in the Abraham story: WHEN ABRAM WAS NINETY-NINE YEARS OLD, THE LORD APPEARED TO ABRAM AND SAID TO HIM, "I AM EL SHADDAI. WALK IN MY WAYS AND BE BLAMELESS." (Genesis 17:1) It is with this appearance that God changes Abraham's life. He tells him about Isaac, he introduces the covenant of circumcision, and, somewhat less painfully, changes his name from Abram to Abraham. Because this is a major turning point in Abraham's life, Abraham's name is changed.

Getting back to our parsha, this is a crucial turning point in the Biblical narrative of our perception of how God acts in the world. In Genesis, we see a God Who works on a universal scale. He creates the world, He brings on a flood, He destroys a city. We also see Him work with individuals: He saves Noah from the flood, He speaks to the patriarchs, He plucks Lot of out Sodom. But only in Exodus - beginning in our very parsha - do we see a national God, a God who works in history - who performs miracles - on behalf of a particular people. And the parallelism is that just as we can understand God as having said to Abraham, "This is such a momentous change for you, that we must mark it by changing your name," here we can understand God as saying to Moses, "This is such a momentous change for how I am perceived in the world that we must mark it by changing MY NAME. I will no longer be known as EL Shaddai, as I was to the patriarchs, but I will now be known as YHWH." And indeed, today, and for the last 2000 years at least, it is to Adonai, YHWH, that Jews the world over address their prayers.


Shabbat Shalom.