D’Var Torah: What’s in a name?

 

This summer, I came to Milwaukee to begin my new role as the rabbi of Lake Park Synagogue. My congregants know me as Rabbi Dinin. Whether they’re asking me about the Torah, Jewish law or to pass the salt at Shabbat dinner, I am Rabbi Dinin. But when I came to my new home, I brought other names with me. To my children I am Daddy or Abba, depending on their mood. To my wife, family and friends, I am Joel. But each time I meet a new person in town I have to decide, am I Joel or am I Rabbi Dinin? Am I meeting a friend or a colleague or a person who I may serve as a rabbi? And even if I befriend someone, do I ever stop being a rabbi?

Having multiple names is confusing, but what matters is not what we are called; it’s what we do. And what we do allows us to build relationships with those around us.

Rabbi David Aaron, in his work, “The Secret Life of God,” emphasizes the point that the name of God that we aren’t allowed to pronounce—spelled with the Hebrew letters Yud, Hey, Vav and Hey—is not a proper name like Ted or Menachem, but rather a powerful combination of the Hebrew words for “is,” “was” and “will be.” In other words, God’s “true” name is not a name at all; God’s name is a verb.

God is identified with many names in the Torah. In the beginning of Parashat Vaera, God tells Moshe that He appeared (Vaera) to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov by the name of El Shaddai, rather than the four-letter name he uses with Moshe. The Hebrew word, “El” is often translated as Lord, but the word Shaddai has no known translation. The Talmud suggests that it may be a contraction of two Hebrew words meaning “that” [God] is “enough,” “Sh’dai,” representing God’s power over nature. While there are questions regarding this interpretation, there is yet another that speaks to me and helps me understand and strengthen my relationship with the Divine.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, suggests in his work Midbar Shur that the word Shaddai is connected with the verb “shidud” meaning to intervene in nature.

The God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov worked behind-the-scenes, directing the flow of events, but only getting directly involved in the lives of his servants when necessary. Even when such divine intervention took place, it was rarely in open dialogue or outright miracles; oftentimes God communicated through dreams. This doesn’t mean that God wasn’t known to these men, but that God’s role in their relationship was like that of a shepherd leading his flock.

When God revealed Himself to Moshe, sharing his holy name openly to humankind for the first time, He was no longer a background character or an omniscient overseer. In that moment, God chose to become a fully committed partner of the Israelite nation, walking among them, speaking directly and regularly through Moshe to all of His people. Through God’s newly revealed name, one of actively relating to His people, he established His covenant, the brit. God is no longer just looking down upon His land from the mountain; now He connects to His chosen nation face to face.

In the end it doesn’t matter if I am being called Joel, or Rabbi, Daddy or G22 at the DMV. What matters most is what I do. It’s about my kindness, my passion, my humor, my faults and my foibles. My different names set up an expectation for what I should be doing, but it is my duty to live up to those roles through my choices. With my actions, I build relationships that go beyond what I am called. Being a rabbi means teaching and guiding others. Being a father means loving and caring for my children. Being a Jew means looking for ways to bring God into every facet of my life. Names have meaning when they are connected to meaningful actions. In any moment, however I choose to identify myself, I hope I can live up to my name.

Rabbi Joel Dinin leads the modern Orthodox Lake Park Synagogue on Milwaukee’s East Side.