The Secret Power of Hebrew Namesby Rabbi Jacob Rupp June 6, 2019
Parents can bend reality with their words. For all the times we wish we’d have a prophet just tell us the right choice to make or direction to take, imagine the level of clarity we would have if we have that prophetic ability and help give someone else insight?
Imagine no more. Just have children and give them Hebrew names.
Judaism teaches that there is a tremendous potency in the power of words. G-d, after all, spoke the world into existence. The Hebrew word “davar” means both word and thing. There is a reality to what we say and what we are called.
And if words mean so much, there must be significance to the fact that certain great people have their name repeated in succession in the Torah. After Abraham successfully completes his greatest challenge he hears, “Abraham, Abraham!” The deeper sources inthe Torah explain that at that moment, the earthly version of Abraham (his potential) had become the heavenly version (the actualized self). Abraham had actualized his potential by his great deeds, and as such merited the double name.
From here it is evident that we have two names; two paths in the world—one is who we are and the second is who we can be, and both are legitimate and real components of ourselves. There is another teaching that says we have not one or two but four names (sounds like the Seder, doesn’t it?). The name our parents give us, the name our friends give us, the name G-d gives us, and the name we call ourselves.
Said another way, we have four identities. We have our biology or our traditions, we have our social interactions, we have our potential to be actualized, and we have our self-image. Far more than Peter or Tracy, Jewish names shed light on our true essence; by tapping into our names, we understand who we are.
Our rabbis tell us that parents get ruach hakodesh, a holy insight (think mini prophecy) when they are naming their child. G-d endows them with the ability to understand the essence of their progeny when they are naming them. This explains the Jewish customs of naming children after relatives or people who have passed, as they carry on or should carry on their legacy and character traits.
Transmigration of souls, spiritual connections, reincarnations, and even resurrection are deeply Jewish concepts. Words that have the same numerical value are seen to be connected, words with the same roots or letters are connected, and all the more so with names. There is a profound spiritual connection between say, a modern day fifth grader named “Avraham” and the great grandfather after whom he was named. And they both share qualities with their original forbearer Abraham who lived over five thousand years ago.
There is a beautiful custom at a circumcision or at a baby naming for the parents to explain after whom the baby was named and why. This speech usually contains both the memories of dearly departed and the hopes and dreams for the child’s future. The parents recognize that even a brand-new baby is just another extension in a long chain of destiny.
So, if our names contain our connections and our essence, wouldn’t it be amazing to go back and understand who we are and what we are about? Even if we didn’t get Jewish names from our parents, imagine the power of going back and understanding the root character traits that lay dormant within us from the moment we got our name and waiting to be expressed throughout our lives.
In my life, with each of my children I can see how they are manifestations of their names already at a young age. For me personally I can see how the essence of my biblical namesake Yaakov, Jacob is expressed in my personality.
Jacob is known as the man of truth, but at the same time had to learn how to be deceptive when working for his devious father-in-law, Lavan. I have always felt compelled to get to the bottom line, to see through the smoke, and to uncover reality while at the same time feeling a need to hide or deceive those around me. Randomness? Fate?
I named my third daughter Aliza Gittel. Aliza was my wife’s grandmother and means joy. For whatever reason, the nurse delivering my daughter exclaimed as soon as she came out “She’s such a happy baby!” (I’m not sure how or why she said this as she had been out literally about two seconds at this point). In her five plus years, that’s who she is; the brightest sunlight and boundless amounts of happy energy.
My son I named Eliyahu Gershon after a few great Eliyahus in Jewish history, including the Vilna Goan and the famous prophet. The story that most inspired me about the prophet Eliyahu was when he stood atop Mount Carmel and told the masses that they needed to eliminate their ambiguity, and even if he stood alone, he would stand for the true G-d. Anyone that knows my son, knows that he’s extremely exacting in his perspective and undeterred by those around him. I also wanted to name him after my grandfather, whose Hebrew name was Gershon. Much to my shock, the first name mentioned in the Torah portion which coincided with his birth was, you guessed it, Gershon.
There are many more examples to cite, but suffice to say that Hebrew names are deep. They have power not only for who our children are, but for who we are as well. There is a great beauty in living life knowing after whom you were named after and what legacy you carry forth. It is just another way to see how the Torah and Judaism isn’t just a religion or an identity, but something much deeper.