Names matter. Our names define us, identify us, separate us.
But if our names identify us, what happens when we are called by a different name? Are we changed? The same? Or do our various names give us room to be multi-dimensional?
As much as we identify with our names, we are so much more. The question “Who are you?” can be answered in many ways.
Like most people, my answer changes depending on who’s asking me, and when, and where. The answer usually is in relation to someone else – I’m Ellie and Sarah’s mom, Kol HaNeshama’s rabbi, so-and-so’s friend.
Having lived in my community for a long time, I have a lot of different identities, depending on who you ask and when they first knew me. And because I’ve held different jobs, lived in different neighborhoods during my 20-plus years here, my identity is complex, multi-layered. People often say to me, “I knew you when you were….”
But what happens when you leave one life to begin another? As far as others are concerned, your defining elements narrow – the name you are called by is your primary identifier, rather than the essence of who you are. Or you become one-dimensional – you’re the person who moved into the house down the street, the mom of that noisy three-year-old, the new guy at work, the tall man with the goatee.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about this week’s Torah portion, which begins with God’s call to Avram, is that God simply shows up unannounced, with no introduction, and tells Avram to lech l’cha, “take yourself… to a land that I will show you,” and then makes an extravagant promise:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
The text doesn’t tell us explicitly that there is a formal introduction but we know that Avram understands who God is, because soon God makes another promise (this time to give him the land of Canaan) and Abram builds an altar and “calls God by name.”
Throughout the next few chapters, God will be introduced by several names, and two important characters’ names will be changed – Avram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.
Did the new names change them? Or did their expanded definitions of themselves, their new appellations, give them room to grow?
The phrase by which God calls Avram (soon to be Abraham) is lech l’cha. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees this phrase as encompassing the four dimensions of the journey our forefather was about to undertake, because lech l’cha can mean “take yourself” as I translated it above. But it can also mean, as Rashi said, “go for yourself.” Or it can be understood to mean “go with yourself,” or even “go to yourself.”
God’s message to Avram was a call to do more than leave one physical place for another. It was also a call for self-discovery, urging him to step outside of his own self-definitions to a new, deeper understanding of himself. And perhaps that is why God doesn’t begin by offering an introduction. Names may be useful, but they also can be limiting.
By not beginning with “I am God,” God gave Avram a chance to engage with God on a deeper level that transcended names and definitions. Perhaps that is why, even though he was never told God’s name, Avram knew it, knew God.
As we interact with each other in our daily lives may we too be blessed with the ability to see beyond names, beyond mere descriptions and definitions, to the essence of those around us.