Well, I suppose there’s the first one, but you don’t choose it; your parents do. Then there are the nicknames your siblings or cousins give you….but you don’t choose that one, either. If you’re a woman of a certain age, you probably changed your name after wearing that white gown to a party, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore. (As an aside, which is why this is in parenthesis, I did not keep my family name Salzman and become Salzman Silvert, because the initials were just too….well, figure it out yourself. Though, thanks to Facebook, that’s exactly how my name reads. Go figure.)
I chose my own name once when I got a CB radio, and established the handle “Seabird.” Some people get vanity plates, which offer a whole other opportunity to name ourselves through our alter-egos, our cars. We get to do it over and over now through all sorts of social media, starting with an email name. It’s interesting to see how kids will mature past “beaniebabielovr” or “bballgr8estgame” into names they would feel better about putting on a resume.
Abram and Sarai get new names in this week’s parasha, “Lech L’cha.” They start out Abram and Sarai and end up Abraham and Sarah. God changes their names for them. Abram becomes Abraham (Gen 17:5) when God appears before him, saying God will make Abram a father of a great multitude. This takes a fair amount of faith, given that Abram’s wife Sarai has not been able to bear children, and he is finally getting a son through his wife’s servant, Hagar.
For Sarai, her name change comes at the same time, with the promise that she will have a son, too. (Gen 17:15). God tells Abraham to start calling his wife “Sarah” instead of “Sarai.” One wonders how Abraham broke the news to her, “Um, dear, I’ve had a talk with God, the one I told you about? Anyway, God says I’m supposed to call you Sarah from now on, because you’ll be blessed by God, and you’ll have a son. What’s for dinner?”
In both cases, the extra letter God gives them is the Hebrew letter “heh”, like an “h”. The rabbis say that “heh” is God – the letter is part of God’s name “Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh.” For both Abraham and Sarah, the new name acknowledges that there is a new presence in their lives. They are not like they were before, and their new name shows that. Allowing God into their lives lay the basis for great things to follow. Perhaps they couldn’t do the work they were being asked to do, leaving their homes (Lech l’cha…Go forth) and build what they were to begin building, if God’s presence wasn’t there.
We have opportunities to name ourselves every day, through our actions. We establish a name for ourselves, one that, if negative, is hard to undo. But if we have welcomed a spiritual presence into our lives, then we will be blessed and be known by that name. Our actions will make the outer and inner names match, and that’s truly a blessed way to live.