B'midbar for Tots

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Eternal spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These were the names of Aaron's sons: Nadab, the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar

-Numbers 3:1-3:2

This week's Torah reading begins the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, B'midbar,  combining both history and law. B'midbar  literally means "in the wilderness" as the events described did indeed take place in the wilderness. The English name refers to the counting and organizing of the people, by dividing them into groups according to names of leaders, hence, the 12 tribes.

According to Anita Diamant in What to Name Your Jewish Baby, "Like Adam's appointed task of giving names to all living things in Eden, naming is an exercise of power and creativity." One of the first jobs we have as parents is to choose a name for our child, a powerful act on our part. And from the moment we begin calling our child by that name, it is as if she or he were born to wear that name. For months before we bring our infant home, we read baby naming books and think about after whom we want to name our baby. What name will we choose if it's a boy? A girl? Should we name our son after Grandpa Sam? Will our daughter's namesake be Grandma Rose? This creative act of naming your child has the enormous power to inform the person your child will become.

There are two Jewish customs for naming children: Ashkenazic Jews honor departed relatives by naming their children after them. Sephardic Jews name their babies after much-loved living relatives. Regardless of which custom you follow, it is also common for American Jews to choose both English and Hebrew names (first and middle) for their children; often, both the English and the Hebrew name start with the same letter. For example, Samantha's Hebrew name might be Sarah. Sometimes the English name is given a Hebrew equivalent, such that Robert might be the English name for the Hebrew name Rachamim.

Whomever you decide to name your baby after, the hope is that the essence of that person's neshama,  (soul), and their positive qualities will be transmitted to your baby. The more you know about this person, the more informed you'll be when it comes to telling your child about the person after whom he or she is named. And your child will ask, for children are fascinated with their names. They love to hear stories about their namesakes.

Parents can keep the magic of these memories alive by weaving these stories throughout their children's lives. Letting them know who and why they were named after a particular person will help shape how they see themselves and will give them a spiritual heritage to uphold. You might even like to make these memories part of your weekly Shabbat celebration. Share one memory, one snapshot or one family story about your child's namesake each week. This can build yet another collection of fond memories and help your child feel that he or she is emotionally connected to the family of his or her past.

Certainly, cases exist in which parents don't know as much as they might like to about the namesake of their child. Perhaps the relative lived a great distance away, or he or she passed away before the new parents had a chance to know him or her. In that case, talk to people in your family, find out as much as you can about this important person, take the time to develop as intimate an understanding of this person as you can so that you will be able to help your child understand as much as possible about the person for whom he or she was named.

B'midbar is read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Shavuot, a holiday during which we commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah, to the Jewish people. Many Reform congregations celebrate a plateau in a student's Jewish education by celebrating confirmation on Shavuot. This is made even more special when the confirmands (usually 15- or 16-year-olds) are joined by the youngest learners (5-and 6-year-olds) who attend and participate in the ceremony, along with the older students. In this way, everyone in the congregation can see both groups of students-those who are beginning and those who are completing their formal (religious school or day school) Jewish education. What a wonderful way to celebrate Shavuot and the receiving of Torah-watching the generations grow right before our eyes!

Just as names are descriptors that help define who we are and provide a strong and vital link to prior generations, so, too, can the Ten Commandments be seen as a descriptor, a moral code that is integral to Judaism and faithfully passed down from one generation to the next. In his article "Shavuot for Kids: A Pajama Party With Ice Cream," author Ken Bresler quotes one of his favorite Shavuot stories as retold by Julie Hilton Danan:

The Midrash (Midrash Shir HaShirim 1:4) tells that before God would give the Torah to Israel, God told Moses that the Jews would have to provide a guarantor who would prove that they would continue to observe the Torah. First the Israelites offered their holy ancestors, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, as guarantors, but God would not accept it. Then they suggested the prophets, people of passion and vision. But still the Holy One was not satisfied with their suggestion. Finally, the Israelites said that their children would be the guarantors, that they would observe the Torah. And God accepted. 1

Because of a continuous stream of named people-from Moses giving us the Torah on Mount Sinai, to the elaborate list of those named in B'midbar's census, to the present generation of young children who receive their tiny sifrei Torah (plural for Torah) during their consecration ceremonies-we recognize that names, traditions and prior generations all play a vital part in keeping Judaism alive. On this Shabbat, we honor names and all that they represent.

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

  1. Do you know after whom you were named? Do you know why you were named after that person?
  2. If you don't know much about the person for whom you were named, can you create your own story that would explain why you were named for that person?
  3. Do you know your own Hebrew name? If not, can you think of a Hebrew name you would like to have? You might be able to do some online research or talk with your rabbi or Jewish educator for some advice on how to choose a Hebrew name for yourself.
  4. Did you follow either the Ashkenazic (Eastern European heritage) or Sephardic (Spain, South America and Middle Eastern heritage) custom of naming your child after a deceased or living relative? If not, did you name your child (children) after someone in particular? If so, why?
  5. If you were asked to name three qualities possessed by the person for whom your child was named, what would they be?

Questions for Children:

  1. After whom were you named?
  2. What is your middle name?
  3. What is your Hebrew name? Do you know what your Hebrew name means?
  4. Do you have a Hebrew middle name?
  5. Can you remember any stories that were told to you about the person after whom you were named?
  6. What is your favorite name? Why?
  7. Have you ever named a pet or a stuffed animal? What name did you choose and why?
Reference Materials

Pages 1028-1043 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.

Originally published: