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The Power of Names and Naming

  • The Power of Names and Naming

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

Elie Wiesel has written, "In Jewish history, a name has its own history and its own memory. It connects beings with their origins. To retrace its path is then to embark on an adventure in which the destiny of a single word becomes one with that of a community; it is to undertake a passionate and enriching quest for all those who may live in your name."1

From the story of the Creation through the rest of Genesis, the giving of names has been a significant part of the biblical narrative. After creating the wild animals and birds, God "brought the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man called it, that became the creature's name" (Genesis 2:19).

In this week's portion, Mikeitz, Joseph moves from being falsely imprisoned to becoming second in command in Egypt due to his ability to interpret dreams. As Joseph settles into his new life, he is given a new name by Pharaoh: Zaphenath-paneah, which is "Egyptian for 'God speaks; He lives' or 'Creator of life.' "2 This name signifies not only that Joseph is now fully part of Egyptian society, but also that his special gift that has allowed him to succeed is the ability to speak for God.

Pharaoh also gives Joseph "Asenath daughter of Potiphera priest of On as a wife" (Genesis 41:45) and they soon become parents of two boys. "Joseph named the first-born son Manasseh [Hebrew, Menasheh], 'For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father's house.' And he named the second one Ephraim, 'For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction' " (Genesis 41:51-52). These explanations may or may not accurately reflect the actual linguistic derivation of the names, but they do reflect the biblical author's understanding of the meaning of the name in relationship to the narrative.

Joseph's sons were born during the seven years of plenty, before the years of famine hit Egypt. As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg observes, "In the names he gives his sons, he tenders an account of his life-drama, as he perceives it at this moment of its course, when his own fertility mirrors the general prosperity."3

The names that Joseph chooses for his sons reflect Joseph's attitude toward his past adversity and his present good fortunes. Again, Zornberg states it well: "nowhere does Joseph reveal as nakedly as in these names his own feeling about the strange vicissitudes of his life. Nowhere does he comment so openly on its bitterness and its sweetness as in these namings that encode his sense of God's dealings with him" (p. 285).

But what do the names really say about Joseph at this point in his life? With the birth of Manasseh, Joseph seems to be ready to move on with his life, to look forward to the future, rather than the past. Until this moment in the story, we don't know what Joseph is thinking about his past. His statement confirms that with his new Egyptian identity he is ready to move on with his life.

Having recently interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh, in addition to those of Pharaoh's chief cupbearer and chief baker, Joseph must have recalled his own dreams that appeared to have indicated that at some point his family will serve him. Recognizing his ability to discern God's interpretation of the dreams of others, Joseph had to have at least thought about his own dreams and how they too might be realized.

Nevertheless, in naming his firstborn, Joseph seems to want to have nothing to do with his past. "The dangers of obsession with the past are very real for Joseph; they have the power to cripple him in the essential task he has undertaken" (Zornberg, p. 286).

Ironically, in choosing the name Manasseh, Joseph assures that every time he mentions the name he would be reminded of wanting to forget his past! Of course, no sooner has Joseph made his declaration about forgetting the troubles that he endured in his father's house, then who shows up but his very brothers who were the cause of most of those troubles! Try as he might to forget his past, he is forced to confront it when they arrive in Egypt in search of food.

With the birth of his second son, Ephraim, Joseph chooses a name that affirms both the challenges and the blessings he has experienced in his new home, Egypt. On the one hand, he was falsely accused of attacking Potiphar's wife and ended up in prison. On the other hand, his ability to interpret dreams has allowed him to become a powerful official who is now further blessed with two sons.

Like Joseph, parents today have the honor and challenge of giving names to their children. And Jews-by-choice and those who never received a Hebrew name can select their own Hebrew names. Our tradition provides certain guidelines for parents. For example, Jews of Ashkenazic descent often will name a child after a recently deceased loved one so that name, and hopefully the wonderful qualities of that person, will be reflected in the next generation. Sephardic Jews sometimes name a child for a living relative for similar reasons. People sometimes choose Hebrew names of a biblical character they particularly admire or select a name with a meaning that they find significant. Since one's full Hebrew name includes the names of one's father and/or mother, they connect with those who gave us life (or in the case of Jews-by-choice, with Abraham and Sarah who gave the Jewish people life).

From biblical times, naming has been important to our people. The meaning of names often sheds light on the parents who choose the name, as well on those who receive the name. While names do not determine our destiny, they provide us with the opportunity to bring honor to the names we bear and to assure that those for whom we were named live on.

1. See Arthur Kurzweil, From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Personal History (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980), p. 7

2. W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ, 2005), p. 271

3. Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995), p. 285

Rabbi Bruce Kadden is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington. Rabbi Kadden and his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE, have written extensively in the area of Jewish education, including co-authoring three books: Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities; Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer; and Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities.Rabbi Kadden blogs at: http://www.tumblr.com/blog/100gatestojewishlearning.

Sorry, That’s Not Your Name
Davar Acher By: 
Stephen Wise

My Hebrew name is Zisha: I'm named for my maternal grandfather's brother who perished in the Holocaust. It's a variation on the word zis, Yiddish for "sweet," and I've been told everyone thought he was a sweet man. When I started going to the Bialik School, a Jewish day school in Toronto, at the age of six, the teacher went around the room and asked everyone for their Jewish name. I proudly said "My name was Zisha." The teacher said, "Sorry, that's not a proper Hebrew name, it's an old Yiddish name. But Bialik is a Zionist school, you need a strong Modern Hebrew name." That night at home my parents came to me and said I needed a Hebrew name, and as my name is Stephen, they suggested either Shlomo or Shmuel. I chose Shmuel and used that name for years.

The naming of a child carries a great deal of weight, as Rabbi Kadden writes in the d'var Torah above. Is it possible to make a mistake when you give a child a name? I constantly get asked for advice from parents on how to name their children. I always counsel people there is no right or wrong name. Choose a name that honors a relative or a name that has meaning for you. The name you finally choose will always be the right one.

Years later when I started rabbinical school, I wanted to reclaim my name, the legacy of my great uncle. On the first day of classes at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, the teacher asked me for my Jewish name. I tentatively said, "Zisha." She looked at me and then nodded and jotted it down on the attendance sheet. It was so unusual, my friends instantly began using it, both in and out of school. Now I'm proudly Zisha once again, a name filled with sweetness and memory.

Rabbi Stephen Wise is the spiritual leader of Shaarei-Beth El in Oakville, Ontario and the author of a new book for children called Israel: Repairing the World, available at www.ma-tovu.ca.

12/15/2012
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258