What's In A Name?

Just as the introduction of God's new name represents a shift in our relationship with God, our different names and titles also symbolize different relationships and interactions.

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"I am Adonai." (Exodus 6:2) To what can this be compared? To a corporate executive who said to her children, "This is my private phone number, one that not even your father knows. If you are in trouble, use it to reach me--it doesn't go through any switchboard--it is a direct line. And, by the way," she also said, "use it to call me every day, just so I know how you are doing." (Joel Grishaver, And You Shall Be a Blessing)

"O be some other name! What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)

"Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." (Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Your Guide

Think of the names, titles, or nicknames that people call or have called you in various social contexts. How does each nickname reflect the relationship you have with the person or group in each case?

Think of a person whom you address by a formal title (e.g., Mister, Doctor, Professor, Rabbi). In what ways does the use of that title influence your relationship with that person? Imagine what it would be like to refer to that person by his or her first name. Do you think that your relationship to him or her would change as a result?

Have you ever had the opportunity to give a living being a name? What thoughts and feelings went into that decision?

Can you remember the first time you were addressed by a formal title and not by your first name? How did that make you feel?

Consider the quote from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Do you think that your reactions to an unknown or nameless entity would change if you gave it a specific name?

D'var Torah

Names are powerful. In ancient cultures it was believed that knowing the true name of something gave you control over it. Today our relationships to people and things are often defined by the names we use for them. People have different names in different social situations. When we give something a name, we define its very nature.

In this week's Torah portion, God reveals the divine four-letter name Y-H-V-H to Moses. This represents a paradigm shift in the Israelites' relationship to God. Traditional understanding connects the name Elohim with God's attribute of justice, while Y-H-V-H represents God's attribute of mercy. It is this name, which we do not actually pronounce (using Adonai or other substitutions instead), that we connect with the second-person, informal "You" in the phrase Baruch Atah Adonai, "Praised/Blessed are (close-personal-friend) You, Y-H-V-H."

Curiously, this four-letter name is related to the future tense of the Hebrew verb "to be:" Y-H-V-H could be read as the verb "will be." In direct contrast to the idolatrous societies of ancient Egypt and Canaan, the God of the Israelites is not a physical thing--a noun--but rather a verb--a becoming, an evolving potential. Just as we continue to grow and mature as spiritual individuals and as a society, so, too, does God continue to evolve and change along with us.

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Cantor Martin Levson

Cantor Martin Levson was invested as Cantor by the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, School of Sacred Music in 1991. Cantor Levson has previously served Temple Israel of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Temple Beth-El of Monroe, New York, and The Congregation Mishkan Israel of Hamden, Connecticut, and now works at Sinai Temple in Springfield, MA.