What's in a Name?

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the bird of the air, and to every beast of the field… - Bereishit 20:19-20

Who am I?

Jean Valjean cries out this question in Les Misérables. For Javert, the authority chasing him, the answer was and always is a number. But for Jean Valjean, it is his name.

Who am I?

In Shmuel I, we read ki’shmo, kein hoo – for as his name is, so is he. Names and being are intrinsically tied together. In fact, the Midrash teaches that there is no prophecy today save for in one small aspect, the naming of children.

When we name our children, we bestow upon them a gift and a future. Names are not simply identifiers. They speak to who we are and, in a deep sense, who we might become

In Hebrew, neshama is the word for “soul.” Interestingly, the middle two letters of “neshama” are shin and mem – the two letters that comprise the Hebrew word for “name.” As Rabbi Benjamin Blech asserts in Aish.com, “Your name is the key to your soul.” A midrash teaches that when we face heavenly judgment, we will be asked, “What is your name?”  

On numerous occasions, my father told me that he had named me Eliyahu, anticipating that I would be a mevaser tov – a harbinger of good tidings as Eliyahu the prophet! Throughout my life, I have heard my father’s voice in my ear as I have striven to be everything my name asks me to be.

Knowing the importance of names demands our close attention to parashat Miketz.  Miketz opens with the dramatic transformation of Yosef’s life from servitude to royalty, from the pit to the palace. During this time, Yosef has two sons, “And he called the name of the first-born Menashe, for “God has caused me to forget (nashani) all my hardship and all my father’s household.”

What’s this? Yosef gives his first born such a name in gratitude to God for helping him forget his father’s house? But we know Yosef fully identified with his father. He resembled him physically and always held him in his thoughts. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, he saw his father’s partzuf (image) in front of him and ran. Throughout, he held on to his father’s image – his home, teachings and values. His father was always with him. And what? Now that his fate has changed, and he assumes his royal role, he names his first born, “ki nashani”?

But he did not forget! He had carried his father’s household with him, within him, every step of his journey.  A name like Menashe… it is like a name given by an OTD fellow who has fallen far from his upbringing, values and traditions, who turns his back on his past, who then has a son and names him Patrick, or some other name that is not in any way “Jewish sounding” lest anyone associate him with that world he ran from. We know that was not Yosef’s intent because we know he never turned his back on his father’s ways.

Rav Simcha Zissel offers the insight that helps us understand this seeming contradiction. Yosef never forgot – nor wanted to forget – his father’s home and teachings. He carried those teachings with him wherever he went. And now, he found himself in a foreign land, far from his father’s home. He needed to remain rooted in his father’s ways, but he also had to make his way in this new land. He needed to understand the language, nuances, mode of dress of this new place. He had to find a way to exist in two worlds!

If he were to be only Yaakov’s son, he would be doomed. If he were only to be a man of Egypt, he would have been equally doomed. He needed to be Yaakov’s son in Egypt. He needed to build the trust and confidence of his surroundings, even as he remained totally committed to his father’s teachings.  Such a difficult challenge! Yosef turned to God seeking His guidance how to “make it” in his alien surroundings; how to be successful in this place where they didn’t know the ways of Yaakov.

He didn’t give Menashe his name to thank God in forgetting Yaakov’s household or to demean his father’s traditions. Rather, he gave Menashe his name because he needed God’s guidance to enable him to succeed in Egypt.  

How many “Jacks,” “Peters,” “James” and “Scotts” have there been here in America? How many “safe” Americanized Menashes have there been here so that, three or four generations hence, there could be successful families with grandchildren named Chaim, Moshe, and Sarah?

Menashe’s name tells us that Yosef understood the eternal lesson that however much one would like to remain ensconced in his father’s house, to become an adult, to engage the world, demands independence and thoughtfulness; demands balancing the world we love and the world where we find ourselves.

Hasn’t this been the lesson of our people throughout the centuries?

We have had to anticipate sojourning throughout the many stops of Galut. Mitzrayim was just the first Galut, the prototype of all future Galuyot stops until Mashiach arrives. Yosef was the first to have agency in a foreign land, who had neighbors having to engage with him who were not familiar with the ways of Yaakov.

Yosef, with his God-given gifts, ascended to the top of society. In doing so, he had to find a way to take advantage of all that had come his way while never compromising the ways of his father’s household.

In our modern-day Egypt, America, we can appreciate Yosef’s challenge. There are Jews who insist on not only embracing their father’s house but also with living as though they still lived in it. But we do not live in our fathers’ houses. What we carry are the traditions, the beliefs, the gifts of those houses. Like Yosef, we need to find a way to live in our houses even as we honor the houses of our fathers.

Whether in America, Egypt, France, England or Israel, we must remain forever committed to the ways of Yaakov while at the same time find Torah-sanctioned ways to thrive even in a foreign and decadent environment. Such a balance necessitates an approach that will enable us to survive and prosper in whatever Egypt we find ourselves in. Again, we never compromise our Yaakov heritage but, like Yosef, we must find a way to simultaneously be a viceroy in Pharaoh’s palace.

Remember, of all our Biblical heroes and teachers, only Yosef is referred to as Yosef Hatzadik. It takes a true tzadik to find a way to thrive in Egypt (or New York, or Los Angeles or any other place.)

Yosef named his second son Ephraim, “for God has made me fruitful b’etetz onyi – in the land of my suffering.”

Yosef seems to be determined to confuse us with the naming of his sons. After all, Egypt was a great many things but for Yosef, it was hardly a land of suffering. He was a viceroy! A noble. A man of great wealth and prestige. What suffering?

His suffering is the suffering we all endure as strangers in a strange land. Abarbanel explains that he never forgot that he is on foreign land, away from Yaakov’s home and traditions. Isn’t that consistent with our own experience? No matter our station in life, we feel the distance from our father’s home more than the closeness of our success. For Yosef, despite his success, Egypt remained “the land of my suffering”.

Yosef’s challenge is the challenge for any of us living in the world, in the secular city, in America. A poet might say that yes, America is filled with every kind of fruit imaginable; many are good and nutritious, but others are forbidden and dangerous.

Often the two exist side by side, just as the forbidden fruit was located in the center of the Garden.

We must always exist in two worlds – the world of Yaakov and the physical, secular world. We must name our children Menashe in acknowledgment of our galut sojourns. In doing so, we look to Yosef, seeking the right balance in holding on to his Yaakov identity in foreign lands. Yes, we must name our children Menashe but at the same time let us never forget our children named Ephraim who remind us that despite all the opportunities and riches in Egypt/America, despite all we have attained we remain strangers in a strange land, thriving “in the land of suffering”

Never be confused by the importance and significance of the names Yosef bestowed upon his sons. As Rav Samson R Hirsch sums up, Yosef’s choice of names for his sons is the greatest proof of his loyalty to his origins and his determination not to be sucked into Egyptian culture.