God knows us by our deeds, not our names

Numbers 1:1-4:20
Hosea 2:1-22

The shlemiel, a Yiddish designation for a simpleton, is best portrayed by a waiter who spills a bowl of soup on a shlemazel, a hapless restaurant patron; the doppes, a commiserating bystander, communicates his dismay with the verbal expression “tsk, tsk, tsk”; the shmegegee, a kind of graceless, petty individual, laughs at the scene; the shmendrick, often described as an unimpressive apprentice to the shlemiel, asks, “What kind of soup was it?”; and the nudnik, the perennial annoyer, explains in excessive detail to a disinterested audience how the entire incident occurred.

Droll characters like these have added color and humor to conversations and humorous stories that have made these and other Yiddish personality types a rich part of mainstream culture. Although the origin of these descriptive terms is largely unknown to most, tracing the derivation of these idiosyncratic words can be instructive. For example, Shmendrick was the name of a character in a play by that title written in 1877 by Abraham Goldfaden, considered to be the father of the Yiddish theatre.

The term shlemiel is believed to have originated in Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion. In the listing of the names of the princes of the Tribes of Israel found at the beginning of Bamidbar are a series of seemingly unintelligible names, including: Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai, a name that, in addition to two references to God, El and Shaddai, also contains shalom — the Hebrew word for peace — and tzur — the Hebrew word for “rock,” both metaphoric names for God.

Nevertheless, in spite of such a noble sounding name, Shelumiel turned out to be a disappointment. The Talmud identifies Shelumiel as the biblical character Zimri, recorded as having carried on a sordid affair with a Midianite woman that resulted in their violent deaths. (Num 25:1)

Shelumiel’s objectionable behavior appears to have earned him ridicule, hence the derisive title of shlemiel. Furthermore, in addition to immoral behavior, Shelumiel also demonstrated cowardice when Moses instructed the princes of Israel to go forward into the sea. Shelumiel and the others were unwilling to take the risk of walking into the water in spite of reassurances that God would protect them. However, Nahshon ben Amminadab, a man whose name means “snake,” was fearless, came forward, and plunged into the sea until the rising waters reached his nostrils. It was only at that moment that the sea split, revealing the dry land that convinced Shelumiel and his compatriots to escape the pursuing Egyptians by also plunging into the sea.

Although the name Nahshon may not be a household word and was never popularized with a Yiddish designation, in modern Israel his name is a utilized in a superlative fashion: Those who take the lead in dangerous, formidable tasks, the ones who go first, are called Nachshonim. The most righteous people who are admired are those self-effacing individuals who do what has to be done and then think that they have done nothing extraordinary, a notion borne out in numerous interviews with the Righteous Gentiles who, at great personal risk to themselves and their families, saved Jews during the Holocaust. Most said that they did what any decent individual would do and that their actions were not extraordinary in any way. They neither expected nor wanted any praise. They are among the Nachshonim of the world who step forward and plunge into the fray, while the shlemiels sit back and offer a variety of alibis for their inaction and indifference.

Cowardly Shelumiel, the individual with the most religious sounding name, turned out to be least faithful, whereas Nahshon, the prince of Israel without a religious sounding name, proved to be the bravest and most willing to follow the word of God and lead the Israelites. Thus, Bamidbar instructs a student of the Torah that being given a name is not enough, because a name must be earned. The prophet Jeremiah said, “God searches the heart” (17:10). Indeed, Bamidbar teaches that God looks within to see what we are made of because God can see beyond the trappings of piety and righteous names that people often hide behind.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.