A Byzantine mosaic of Moses at the burning bush
A Byzantine mosaic of Moses at the burning bush

Moses raises a good point: Names are important

Exodus 1:1−6:1
Isaiah 27:6−28:13; 29:22-23

One of my greatest joys as a rabbi is officiating at the naming of new babies. In these moments, I get to hear the new parents’ hopes and dreams for these new souls. I get to hear wonderful stories, often of the loved ones for whom these children are named.

It is customary, at least in Ashkenazi communities, to name our children after those who have died. The hope is that the baby will exemplify the beloved qualities of the one who has left this Earth, and perhaps, in some way, keep alive the memory of the one who is gone. In the case of choosing a Hebrew name, the name links them to the past for the purpose of a future call to Torah.

In Ron Wolfson’s book “The Spirituality of Welcoming,” he describes the experience of receiving an aliyah to Torah during a Shabbat morning service. He explains that “the most thrilling part … is when I am literally called by name to bless God before and after the Torah reading. ‘Ya-amod, Gershom ben Avraham u’Vracha.’ Arise, Gershon, son of Avraham and Bracha. I am called [by name] to rise, to stand up, to come forward, to ascend the pulpit, to encounter the Torah.”

To be known by this name heightens the spirituality of the moment. It bonds us in community. Hebrew names, which acknowledge our parent’s names in connection with our own, validate our shared history, our ownership over this holy moment.

Names are important. This week we begin the book of our Torah that we usually call Exodus. But, literally, this book is called Shemot, or names.

It is logical then, that Moses’ first inclination when he encounters God’s presence at the burning bush is to ask: What do I call You? “When I come to the Israelites and say to them that the God of your ancestors has sent me to you, they will ask me: What is God’s name?”

Moses understands the importance of names. He knows that a name will help the Israelites draw nearer to God. Having a name for God will help them to believe. It will enable them to connect, to relate, to personalize. Just as our names help us understand ourselves, a name will help the Israelites begin to know God.

No wonder parents-to-be work hard to pick perfect names for their children. This is why there are thousands of books and websites are dedicated to helping parents choose the perfect name for their babies. There is a deep desire to find the perfect word to house this little person’s identity, the sounds by which he or she will be known to the world. There is so much wrapped up in a name.

Moses asks to know God’s name, and God gives Moses an answer. As Moses stands in the presence of the Eternal before a bush that is burning and burning, God names Godself: Ehyeh asher ehyeh.

A play on the verb to be, God’s name is a phrase that defies tense and time. I was what I was, I am what I am, I will be what I will be. The name God gives is about process, about becoming. It is God’s revealing of God’s self as an action that stretches from before time to a time beyond.

The book of Shemot is a story of a people becoming itself, growing into an identity. It details the perseverance of the people Israel as they grow into this strong, holy name.

Our names, like God’s name, are not an ending point. Our names are where we begin. Our names represent promise and aspiration. A name is about becoming: We will be who we will be.

It is only at the end of our lives that those who knew us can say what our names have meant, what our memory will evoke for the next generation.

In the here and now, we will live. We will live up to the essence of our given names and the names we choose for ourselves. It is up to each one of us to make the meaning, to chart the journey.

To be what we were, what we are, and to become all that we hope to be.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].