n one of my groups this week, we looked at the opening passages of this week’s Parasha, Vaera, in which God appears to Moses, explaining that, while our ancestors knew God by the name “El-Shaddai,” Moses will know God by the name “Adonai.” I asked the people in the group why they thought God would need different names. We soon centered on the idea that each person might relate to God a little differently, might need something different from God. Different people might have vastly different relationships with God – and each name for God represents a different facet of the Divine that could serve as a means for people to reach out, to connect.
This wonderful conversation got me thinking about the different names, and the various ways that I have identified and been identified throughout my life. Each nickname, each moniker, each title we have has meaning that helps shape the way we relate to others and others relate to us.
And yet, do we have any control over our own names? Take my first name: Andy. I go by Andy, and not Andrew, because of a decision I made when I was about six years old. You see, there was already a child named Andrew who attended my kindergarten. I was given a choice by my teachers: I could go by “Andrew M,” “Andy,” or “Drew.” From that day onward, I have been known as Andy.
The truth is that names matter. The way we refer to someone or something actually affects the way that we relate to that person or thing. What’s more – we relate to others differently depending what they call us. When thinking about the names we inhabit, I am reminded of a Midrash from Qohelet Rabbah:
A person has three names:
one that he is called by his father and mother;
one that people know him by,
and one that he acquires for himself.
If we take a moment to look at how we fit into this text, we might be able to see the interplay between what we are called and how it affects our behavior. The first example of family of origin offers us an opportunity to reflect on who we were, where we came from. The names our parents give us – from “Bunny Rabbit” to “Lazy” have a profound impact on how we understand ourselves, on how we formulate our identity. What’s more, we (fairly or unfairly) shoulder the hopes and dreams of our parents for the future. We represent their legacy in the world and the ways in which those values, ideals, and expectations are communicated have a profound impact on the way in which we understand who we are, for the good and for the not so good. Our narratives, the stories we play out throughout our lives, usually begin with how we understood our placement in our family.
The second piece of our text represents who we are right now – the various roles we fill in our lives in this moment. The ways in which people relate to us and we relate to others in the here and now. From rabbi, to father, to son, to husband, to jerk – we are different things to different people. The difficulty with holding all of these names, with inhabiting all of these different roles for different people, is that we might just lose ourselves. Unlike the constant narratives that are played out and reinforced throughout our childhood, these names, these stories are ever-changing and always evolving.
It is by looking at the last piece of the quote that I feel we are able to actually understand the spiritual dimension of what we call ourselves and what others call us. By seeking to acquire a name for ourselves we effectively seek to unify all of these disparate aspects of our identity. The spiritual path is to take the names from where we have come, the names by which we are currently known, the name that we want to have and seek to unify them into one authentic and integrated identity. It is only by owning all of the various components of our identities, that we can authentically be our whole selves. By being “Andy” – and owning the disparate pieces of myself – I am able to better be authentic and present in all my affairs.
Which brings us back to God. The God that Moses is introduced to at the beginning of the story says simply that I am the same God that was known as El-Shaddai. God is modeling for us that we ought to own all of our names, all of the ways people have related to us. We have been known by things that we are proud of and by things that we regret. We don’t have to understand ourselves as merely one aspect of who we were; we can also frame our identities around who we want to be. After all, what people call us and how we relate to them can change, as we change… and that, well that sounds a lot like T’Shuvah to me.
Rabbi Andy Markowitz