These days, people alter their names for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are getting married or divorced, they wish to assume a stage name, they want to correct their name, or they simply don't like their name. Some but not all of these cases represent a change in status. And unless a change is fraudulent, there is no prohibition against it.
In biblical times, personal names often reflected the circumstances of birth and were based on an event, a situation, or a personal characteristic. At times, they were reminiscent of animal or plant names as terms of endearment. A change in the role or status of an individual required a change in name; kings and other leaders frequently took on new names when they assumed power. Thus, for example, Jacob becomes Israel; Joseph becomes Zaphenath-paneah; Hosea becomes Joshua; the Judean kings Eliakim and Mattaniah become Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, respectively, and Hadassah becomes Esther. The case of Solomon is not clear, however. The Bible tells us that Bathsheba named him Solomon, yet through the prophet Nathan he was called Jedidiah ("beloved of Adonai ," II Samuel 12:25). Was Jedidiah his throne name? We do not know.
In the ancient Near East, among non-Israelites too, a name change indicated a change in status. Thus, for instance, Amenhotep IV of Egypt became Akh-en-aten; at least three Persian kings of the Achaemenid dynasty assumed the name of Artaxerxes (I, II, and III) in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E. In the New Testament, the apostle Simon was later called Peter. And today, popes and kings regularly take on new throne names.
In this week's Torah portion, Lech L'cha , Abram's name is changed to Abraham as part of a new covenant with God, through circumcision. Later on, Sarai, his wife, becomes Sarah. How can we account for these changes?
The name Abram, related perhaps to other ancient Near Eastern names of the nineteenth century B.C.E., such as Abiram or Abarama, meant either "Father [that is, God] is exalted" (from West Semitic rwm ) or "Father [that is, God] loves" (from Akkadian ramu ). The Bible explains the change in Abram's name by saying that Abraham will now become av hamon goyim, "father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:5). With regard to Sarai, who becomes Sarah, we find no explanation at all (Genesis 17:15).
Grammatically speaking, Sarai is an archaic form of Sarah. The Talmud, however, intimates that the change marks the end of her barrenness (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16b). The midrash states that the change is made because until now she has been a princess to her own people, but from this point forward she becomes a princess to all humanity (cf. B'reishit Rabbah 47:1).
The Bible often provides nongrammatical, popular etymologies using a "sounds-like" approach. The case of Abraham is one of them. Though the explanation is linguistically incorrect, the text points to the patriarch's new status in humanity. The Rabbis, on the other hand, try to solve the problem by saying that this is a notarikon, namely, "the system of abbreviation either by shortening the words or by writing only one letter of each word" (per Encyclopaedia Judaica ). So, for example, Rashi states that in the beginning, Abram is only the "father" of Aram, his birthplace, but now he becomes the father of all nations. This is achieved by adding the letter hei , the first letter of hamon, "multitude," to his name: Abram becomes Abra ha m. Regarding Sarah, Rashi adds that the final letter yod in Sarai was taken away from her and given to Joshua, when his own name was altered from Hosea (Rashi on Genesis 17:5). For Ibn Ezra, the letters aleph, bet, reish, hei, and mem stand for Abir ("the mighty one," that is, God), hamon, and goyim ("nations").
In the Bible, the word shem, "name," also means "reputation," for when a person's acts are known in the community, his or her name goes out for recognition and, if the act is commendable, for praise. Thus, for example, when the builders of the Tower of Babel seek acknowledgment for their achievement, they state that their goal is to "make a name for ourselves" (Genesis 11:4).
Life experiences show us that there is nothing more precious to us than our good name. A fine reputation cannot be bought. It must be achieved through deeds of kindness and generosity. "A good name is better than fragrant oil," states Ecclesiastes 7:1. According to Proverbs 22:1, "Repute is preferable to great wealth." Countless individuals of excellent reputation have been destroyed because of a dark shadow on their name. One shameful deed can blot out all the good that a person has done in the past. Regrettably, many have been dishonored because of a false accusation against their good name.
Whether we keep our names or change them, we need to keep our reputation above reproach, as one of our most important possessions. We can do that by being most careful about what we say and do. "Have regard for your name," teaches Ben Sira in Apocrypha, "since it will remain for you longer than many stores of gold." (Wisdom of Ben Sira 41:12) Then we can be proud of our achievements and the name we leave behind.
At the time of this writing in 2006, Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., was rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, and a member of the theology department at Boston College .
Let me tell you about a friend of mine, whom I will call Claire. Well into her ninth decade, Claire has been a member of the same Reform congregation for her whole life. During that time, she has witnessed many changes in her temple. Rabbis came and left. The membership evolved. Descendants of the original families from the nineteenth century slowly were replaced by "newcomers" to their small midwestern city. Claire saw her rabbi and others leave to fight in the Second World War. Some did not return; they are memorialized on a wall in the sanctuary. Toward the end of that war, Claire attended a USO dance in the temple's "vestry room"; it was there that she met her husband. Together they raised their family, and their children and grandchildren are members of the same congregation today.
Claire still loves to attend services when she is able to do so. Services have changed. The choir and pipe organ are gone, replaced on many Shabbat evenings by a band. Young children, who in another time would have been admonished to sit silently, dance and sing as part of the worship service. This is acceptable to Claire; she is pleased that the temple provides continuity for her family's Jewish identity.
Yet when it comes to prayer, Claire is very clear that her "prayer" will not change. As is the custom in so many Reform congregations, the congregation chants the words to V'ahavta using the cantillation from the Torah. When this happens, Claire quietly closes her siddur. Under her breath, Claire intones those words from childhood that remain upon her heart: "Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (The Union Prayer Book II [New York: CCAR, 1945], p. 12).
Few subjects capture the attention of our worshipers today more than the element of change. As a Reform Movement, we grapple with new liturgy. The old familiar "prayer books" that Claire knew in her time have been replaced by new siddurim. The sights and sounds of Friday evening feel somehow different. Some of those who worship find that they encounter change much too often, leaving them with a sense of reluctance.
In this week's parashah, Lech L'cha, Abraham confronts one of the major changes of his life. In Genesis 12:1, God appears to Abram (as he is first called) and says, "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you." The Hebrew text includes the word umimolad'tcha, "from your birthplace." Imagine how Abraham takes this news. The nature of God's charge is enormous, so much so that the commentators imagine Abraham's reluctance in their dialogue together. Abraham needs clarification regarding the charge because the proposed change in his life is huge. He must leave his native country, birthplace, and family home for something unknown. And yet Abraham, in what will be the first of several acts of faith, embraces the change and sets out on the journey.
Imagine, too, the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their actions in the face of the adjustments that they must make in their lives. Do they accept the changes that they encounter? Are they passive or active in their struggles? As little as we know about Isaac, we later see him in change conflict as he must decide which of his sons to bless. Rebekah, who has orchestrated this scenario, plays a most active role in determining the future of her family and, ultimately, their descendants. Much later we meet Jacob, whose destiny is marked by struggle. Jacob's encounters first with the agents of God (Genesis 28:10-22) and later with the stranger (Genesis 32:4-33) effect his transformation and ultimately set in motion the destiny of the people Israel.
More often than not, change is thrust upon us. Throughout the history of our people, we have encountered cultures and communities that challenged our vision. Our Reform founders grappled and embraced change that seemed at times to rapidly descend on our world. It is in the very essence of this struggle and change that we have survived as a people.
Change is hard. It has not always been easy for my friend Claire. Yet, like Abraham, Claire looks ahead. Abraham steps out on the journey with the faith that God's blessing will lie ahead for his family, his offspring, and all those who will follow in the same path. Claire embraces the tumult of change. Her faith tells her that this too shall be a blessing.
At the time of this writing in 2006, Cantor Samuel B. Radwine was a visiting lecturer in liturgical music at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and the cantor at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay Rancho Palos Verdes, California.
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84