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A Letter to My Daughter on Her Many Names

A Letter to My Daughter on Her Many Names

Image of the feet of a newborn baby

My love,

There is this really wonderful chapter in the Torah called Parashat Va-eira. It is about the many names of God.

Yes, God has many names!

We read that God was known by our ancestors as El Shaddai. Although we translate El Shaddai as “God Almighty,” the translation for the word Shaddai is “breast” – which tells me we don’t really know what our ancestors understood!

We also learn that when God is trying to get Moses’s attention, God uses another name, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” – but then, finally, God settles for YHVH. Although we have lost the pronunciation for this word, we pronounce it “Adonai” Still, given that at this point in the story Moses is just starting to get to know God, there is very little Moses can really understand as far as the meaning and content of this name. Only later will Moses discover that this name also means “The Liberator,” “The Redeemer,” and “The one who splits the waters.”

In some prayer books, you may also see God called “Father,” “Lord,” and “King,” though most Reform Jews no longer assign God a gender. Instead, God is often called “Our Creator,” “The Compassionate One,” “The Divine,” etc. Like I said: so many names!

My love, Mommy and Daddy worked hard to try to find the perfect name for you. You see, in Jewish tradition we say that “a good name is better than riches” (Proverbs 22.1), and we hope we gave you names at the time of your birth that convey attributes we value and hope to help nurture and develop in you: strength, depth, humor, joy, a sense of the value of family and legacy, etc.

Throughout your life, though, you will be given other names. Perhaps you will be called “beautiful,” whether inside or out (or both). Perhaps you will be called “smart” because you are good with math or good with people. You might be called “courageous,” “kind,” and “gentle,” or you might be told you are “strong.” Other times, you will be called “persistent” when you don’t want to let go of a point of view and want your voice to be heard. You might be called “angry” or “unpleasant” because you don’t feel like smiling all the time. Or “cold” because you don’t want to kiss or hug someone. (Honey, it’s OK to not hug or kiss someone if you don’t want to.)

Others will call you “arrogant” because you want what you want in your life and you have a sense of personal and professional achievement. (At the time Mommy is writing this letter to you, some girls and women are called “arrogant” and “pretentious” for the same reasons their counterpart males are called “poised” or “driven.”)

I’m sure there will be many more names along your journey that I can’t predict at this point. Some will flatter you; some will look exactly like what you have worked for so hard; some will take you as a pleasant surprise. Be gracious and humble for all these. Others, you won’t like so much. When this happens, take a deep breath. Names always teach you something – if not about yourself, then surely about others.

In Jewish tradition, we say that we human beings were created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It’s difficult to understand what we could have in common with that which is Ever-Present, the One who is experienced but never truly known. I now think that perhaps the spark of divinity that lives within us is that we, just like God, have many names throughout our lives. But although those names may or may not define you at a certain time, they surely don’t determine who you are or who you will yet become.

Perhaps the most wonderful name of God is “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” My dear daughter, this is true about you, and about all of the rest of us, as well. The only thing I know for sure is that you will be an ongoing force of change. That is our true nature: our capacity to change and renew ourselves, both when it’s easy to do so, but even more importantly, when it is hard.

Take those names as wings to lift you up and fly high, and not as stones that weigh on you and bring you down.

I love you with all my heart,

Mom

Cantor Sheila Nesis is the cantor at Temple Sinai in Denver, CO. She grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to New York City in 2007 to join the clergy at Temple Israel in Manhattan. Prior to that, and in partnership with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, she toured the United States performing a repertoire of liturgical Jewish music, tangos and boleros, Ladino songs, and jazz. She also served as cantor and educator for Congregation Kehillah in Scottsdale, AZ, as well as other Reform and Conservative institutions in the Phoenix area.

Cantor Sheila Nesis
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