What’s in a name? Holiness, authenticity

Rabbi Michael Alper serves Congregation Temple Israel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Michael Alper

This past week, I forgot my name. I was trying to log on to one of the many different sites I use — Facebook, Amazon, my son’s school, my work email — and I couldn’t remember which screen name I used for which.

Was I Michael or MikeyAlper? Rabbidude or jonah-and-mollys-dad?

 

I searched through my desk, in which I have countless scraps of paper with different names and passwords written down, but I realized that I had finally done it. I had too many names to keep track of.

 

Eventually, after answering multiple security questions, I was able to figure it out, but the experience shook me a little.

 

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It wasn’t so much the annoyance of sifting through multiple passwords as the realization that somehow, on a deeper level, I had divided myself into too many identities. The name and the face with which I presented myself in one world was really quite different than the one I shared everywhere else.

I thought to myself, which is the name that truly defines me? Will the real Michael Alper please stand up?

 

This week in the Torah, we begin the book of Names, Shmot, which we often refer to by its English title, Exodus. But in Hebrew, it is Shmot, Names, and begins with the telling of the names of the sons of Israel, everyone who came into Egypt with Jacob.

 

Yet shortly after the Torah shares the names of Jacob and his sons, it comes in and tells us that the new Pharaoh of Egypt doesn’t know these names, doesn’t know Joseph and the Israelites at all. As a result, he can easily look at the Israelites as a giant, nameless, faceless mass, one which is too big and too mighty and which would be best off enslaved.

The story of Moses begins here and this, of course, becomes the story of the Exodus and the defining narrative of our people. Yet how different might the story have been if these names had not been forgotten!

It seems to me that it is all too easy to lose our names, to lose our authentic selves. When we define ourselves in so many different ways, we can lose out on our core identity, forgetting what really defines us and who we came from.

 

This is not to say that we can’t define ourselves in multiple ways. After all, when Moses meets God, Moses doesn’t even know who He is, and God needs to share several of His names to make sure Moses realizes with whom he is speaking. Yet each of God’s names is laden with meaning and helps Moses, and all of us, to better understand who God is.

 

Can we say the same of ourselves? Are each of the names and sides of ourselves that we show the world equally authentic, equally real and holy?

As we begin both the new secular year and this new book of the Torah, the book of Names, may we find ourselves thinking more consciously about the names we use to define ourselves. May each of them help us further explore who we are and who we wish to be, and may we be known only by those names that we would willingly choose ourselves.

May we, like God, be able to share our names with each other and say, “I am what I am,” with pride and with clarity.