In the popular Harry Potter children’s book series, the evil villain of the story, Lord Voldemort, is often referred to as "you know who" or "He who must not be named" by characters who fear to even use his proper name. Harry Potter’s wise mentor and headmaster advises him, "Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself."
In Judaism we take names seriously. Names are given for a reason – they are chosen with care. In the Bible, names are given based on the situation in life at hand. Names get changed when destinies change, as happens to Abraham, Sarah and Jacob. Today, when a person is ill, sometimes their Hebrew name is changed with the intention of changing their destiny. Ashkenazim name a child after someone, Sephardim name a child in honor of someone, and in both cases there is somewhat of an expectation that the child will carry on that person’s legacy.
In our synagogues we’ve begun reading the book of Shemot, which is popularly known in English as the book of Exodus, because it contains in it the story of the exodus from Egypt. Shemot, however, actually means names. The book begins “ViAleh Shemot Benei Yisrael HaBai-im Mitzrayma” – “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came down to Egypt.”
Says the Medresh Tanchuma, Shemot 2, on this verse: There are people who have good names and repulsive deeds, those who have repulsive names and good deeds, and there are those who have names and deeds that are repulsive. And there are those who have good names and deeds.
And the midrash gives examples of each. One is Avshalom – son of David, clearly a good name – father of peace – and yet his actions – not so good – he took his father’s concubine, and led a massive rebellion. The medresh finishes by saying, "Who are those who had good names and good deeds? The 12 tribes." The Shevatim – named carefully by their mothers and father – they had good names, packed with meaning and picked as indicators of characteristics in days to come.
Why do we care about the name? Aren’t we more focused on the action – on the mitzvah – on the maaseh – on doing what is right? We are, it’s true. But the name is important. The dibbur – what is said – is also important in Judaism – we believe that what one says is important – that it makes a difference what you call someone else. There is power that belongs to names.
In this parsha Moshe gets a name: And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’
She names him Moshe because she drew him from the water. Says the Bible commentator Seforno (Rabbi Obadiah Seforno born c. 1475–1550) his name really should have been Mashui – drawn – yet he was called Moshe – one who draws others. Moshe’s name is a destiny – he will save others – he will draw others out of trouble like he was drawn. He will save the Jew he encounters being attacked by an Egyptian, he will save the daughters of Yitro from the shepherds, he will save the Jewish people from the hands of Pharaoh – and Moshe will even save the Jewish people from the wrath of God after the episode of the Golden calf. Moshe had a good name and had good deeds.
The Jewish people also have a name. We are called Am Yisrael – the people of Israel. The name Yisrael can be broken down into two parts – Yashar and Keil – or straight with God. The name bears witness to the job of the Jewish people – to be straight with God. It is a good name which challenges us to do good deeds.
We also find in the book of Shemot the ten commandments. The third commandment is “do not take the name of the Lord in vain.” Why is this such a fundamental of our faith that it merits being one of the ten commandments? I would suggest that in our world, where God has no tangible, physical existence, the one thing that we do to signify God’s presence is to say His name. Which is why the name of God is taken so seriously.
As it turns out, in our Jewish discourse, we usually have a different issue. We are not concerned with taking the name of God in vain, rather, we don’t mention the name of God at all. For some reason, we are willing to talk about anything from Torah and mitzvot, to social action and tikkun olam, to Israel and national politics, but we are afraid to talk about God. We are willing to talk about good deeds but not the Good Name. Maybe we are afraid of what others will say or think if we use too much “God talk.” Perhaps we have a hard time talking about what is most important and fundamental and are worried we will be called a fundamentalist. It is easier to ignore the “God” in the room, to allow God to become “He who is just not named.” I would suggest that if we are truly to be the people that are “straight with God” we need to be a people that are willing to talk about God and reference him in our daily lives. Then we will truly be deserving of our good name, of being known as Am Yisrael.
Rabbi Wes Kalmar is spiritual leader of Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah in Glendale.