Rabbi Danny Burkeman
The Community Synagogue
, Port Washington, NY
As couples prepare to get married there are many questions about what the wedding will be like; music, dress code, food, seating and 101 other things which need to be organized. However, in the lead up to their married life together one of the big questions, with long term implications, is what they will do about their names. A generation or two ago this was not really a question; wives would be the ones to change their name, invariably taking their husband’s family name. Today it is not so simple, some change, some don’t, some hyphenate, and others choose completely new names. There are lots of choices out there, and it is hard to claim that there is really one preferred option today.
I am sure there are pros and cons to all of the naming options that exist. In theory I think there is something really nice about the hyphenation option; it allows for there to be a statement that two families are becoming one, as the names become linked together. The problem with this option is that often these hyphenated names are a bit of a mouthful (if we were to hyphenate. our surname would be 18 characters, nice for Jewish significance, but a pain to write down), and one can imagine that in another generation it might be quite complicated when hyphenated names need to be combined with each other.
Names have always been important in Judaism; at the very beginning of our people’s story, when Abraham received his call from God, he was told that God would make his name great (Genesis 12:2). God changed Abraham, Sarah and Jacobs’ names at various stages in our story, and God enigmatically answered Moses’ question about God’s name by saying: “
I am that I am
” (Exodus 3:14). A great name is not necessarily about the name in and of itself, rather it is really about the associations people make when they hear that person’s name.
However, in this week’s Torah portion God appears to introduce a new stage in our named relationship. Just before Moses “
finished setting up the Tabernacle
” (Numbers 7:1), God introduced the Priestly blessing formula which is still used today, telling Moses: “
Speak to Aaron and his sons: so shall you bless the People of Israel
” (Numbers 6:23). There then follows the Priestly blessing: “
May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace
” (Numbers 6:25-27). This blessing formula is still used today, offered to the community, to Bnei Mitzvah students, to wedding couples, and to many others.
There are a lot of questions that can be asked about the blessing. Why are these the things which we hope to receive from God? What does it mean for God to be gracious to us? And how can God’s face be lifted up to us or shine upon us? But what I think may be most interesting is what God says following the introduction of this blessing formula: “
Thus they shall link My name with the People of Israel, and I will bless them
” (Numbers 6:28). It appears that in the delivery and receipt of this blessing we, as a people, become joined with God, and joined specifically by our names. Previously, it was said that God would dwell amongst us through the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:8), and that God would walk amongst us through our observance of the commandments (Leviticus 26:12); and now our names are linked together.
Recognizing the importance of names in Judaism, and more generally, this is a moment where a statement is being made. Using the marriage analogy it is at this moment, that we are hyphenating our name together with God. There is a commitment in changing one’s name, a statement that through the name change there is a symbolic change in status and relationship. Through this blessing we receive God’s name, and with it we also accept a challenge. We are challenged to be worthy of having our name linked to God. When we act it is no longer simply on our own behalf, but it is also associated with God’s name. Through our actions may we ensure the elevation not just of our own name, or our communal name, but also the name of God.