Friday, November 19, 2010

What is a name?

In this weeks Torah portion we find jacob approaching the borders of Canaan on his return from Padan Aram, and his Uncle Lavan's home. He is overcome with fear over the pending reunion with his brother Esau. Remember thirty four years ago when Jacob ran in fear because he had just taken his brothers birthright.

He starts the reunion not in person but first, by sending flocks to appease Esau and placing his family and possessions on the other side of a stream called the Yabbok for safety, Ya'akov was left alone for one night which he spent wrestling with a man until the break of dawn. This strange man, whom the Rabbi's explain to be an angel reveals that no longer will Jacob be his name but rather Israel.

This leads us to the question then, what exactly is in a name? Obviously assigning names holds some cosmic significance since giving names to all the creatures on the earth is the first recorded activity of man (B'reishit 2:20). The Or HaChaim teaches us that each name represents a soul. In this light (pun intended), the causative nature of a name is revealed: a name is a representation, a function, and carries with it personality traits. The Hebrew word for "name," spelled "Shin, Mem" contains the same letters as the Hebrew word for "put," suggesting that names place upon us the very nature of our beings.
Our tradition teaches that each of us has three names: the one we are given at birth, the one we are called, and our real name. The task of each person, according to the tradition, is to discover our real name.

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