What’s in a name?
Forget me not!
By: Rabbi Dovid Samuels
“Hashem has charged each one of us with a mission, and we are His agents to carry out that mission.”
On the very first Rosh Hashanah, man was born. That same day, man was named. When the heavenly angels saw Hashem’s magnificent creation – man – they were motivated to sing songs of praise to him. Hashem saw their error and named man Adam, to remind the angels that although this creation was fashioned in the image of G-d, he is nonetheless a mere mortal and comes from the earth (adamah). What a stunning show of not only the awesome potential of a human being, but also a great lesson in humility. And so, until the end of time, a human – Adam – is reminded of his self-worth, unrivalled potential, and the importance of humility. The first Rosh Hashanah was not only the day that Adam was named, but it also marks the occasion when he was given the task of naming every animal in the newly created universe. Could it be such an important task to provide names for the beasts of the wild? What’s in a name?
Would the world look different if a lion was called a sheep and a sheep was called a lion? Perhaps not, when we use the English names, but Adam was imbued with a Divine awareness and was able to see and analyse each animal’s specific role and purpose in this world. Once he reached the essence of the animal, he saw the holy letters of the Hebrew alef-beis which were used to construct each animal. If we could deconstruct a lion in a spiritual laboratory, we would find an Alef, Reish, Yud, and a Hey. Put it together, and you have an Aryeh – a lion.
But it doesn’t stop there. Chazal teach us in many places that names of people are also symbolic of their unique purpose in this world. Avraham was called thus because he was the father (Av) of the whole world (Hamon). Sarah was a leader (Sar) for the entire world. It is also well known that when naming their child, parents are struck with a form of Divine influence that guides them which name to choose. This name symbolises each person’s unique role that he has been sent down into this world to fulfil. Hashem has charged each one of us with a mission, and we are His agents to carry out that mission. Keeping the laws of the Torah is a basic. Beyond that, our lives will guide us hopefully to be successful in accomplishing our exclusive task in this world.
In the concept of agency, or shlichus, Chazal teach us an interesting concept: the agent is like the sender himself. What this means in halachic terms is that the agent can perform certain actions on behalf of another, like acquiring an object, and it is as if the sender himself did it. But with this concept, we can understand our holy roles in this world on a much deeper level. If one were to consider which action is more valuable: one that was commanded, or one that was voluntary, we might all say that a voluntary act carries more worth. A voluntary act shows that the performer decided himself, on his own volition, to do something for someone else. To be commanded, however, shows no personal motivation. Chazal, however, enlighten us to the fact that a commanded act has more value than a voluntary act. Many explanations are given why this is so, one being that a voluntary act – as kind as it may be – might not be exactly what the recipient wants or needs at that moment. A commanded act, on the other hand, is exactly what is needed or wanted at the moment, as the command suggests. But when we understand that we are all agents of Hashem, sent by Him to perform many specific acts in this world, and with the concept of the agent becoming like the sender himself, our fulfilment of Hashem’s will actually turns us into reflections of Hashem himself. When Hashem commands us, we are being imbued with Divine power and responsibility. Voluntary is lovely, but commanded is G-dly. It is not coincidental, then, that a Jew is referred to as a Yehudi, from the name Yehuda. The name Yehuda has all four letters of Hashem’s holy name it. Which means that when a Jew is fulfilling his role, he becomes G-dly, and his actions become G-dly.
This is apparent in the laws of a sefer Torah. We know that the sefer Torah is a very holy item and must be treated with extreme honour. One example of this is that you may not sit on a bench which is also occupied by a sefer Torah. That means that even the sofer who wrote the sefer Torah cannot sit on the same bench as the sefer Torah he wrote. This is hard to understand, as the sefer Torah got it’s kedusha from the sofer himself, yet it becomes holier than he is. How does this work? It works through the concept of shlichus. While the sofer was writing the sefer Torah, he was fulfilling the will of Hashem. At that moment, he was acting on behalf of Hashem, as if, so-to-speak, Hashem Himself was writing the Torah. So when the sofer finishes the Torah and ends his agency, he goes back to being a “regular” person, whereas the sefer Torah remains a holy object. He, now, cannot sit on the same bench as his own sefer Torah!
But it is here that we are confronted with our biggest challenge: remembering that we are agents of Hashem and that we have a mission. And it is specifically here that the yetzer hora attacks us. He focuses all of his energy against us to get us to forget who we are, to forget our mission, to forget Who we are agents of. This sheds some light on a puzzling custom in our personal prayer. It is brought in our siddurim from the Kitzur Hashl”oh that at the end of the Amidah we say a verse that begins and ends with the same letters that our name begins and ends with. He says that this is so that we do not forget our names after death. The explanation is that our names, as mentioned above, represent our unique mission with which Hashem has charged us. Those who have “forgotten” their names are failing in their Divine mission, and will thereby “forget” their names after their death. So after praying to Hashem, where we reconnect to the One Who gives us our mission in this world, and just before we step out of our place of prayer and enter back into the world of action, we recite a verse that reminds us of our name and our holy purpose in the world while we engage in matters that our yetzer hora could use to cause us to forget.
And this is why, when the angel of Eisav was asked his name by Yaakov after wrestling together all night, he responded: “Why are you asking my name?” Certainly a perplexing reply. But when we realise that the whole focus of the yetzer hora is to get us to forget our names, “Why are you asking my name” is a fitting title for such an enemy. His job is to get us to be ambivalent to our names…our G-dly mission. “Why know your name? Why follow your mission? Why worry about what Hashem has tasked you with?” Those are the questions of the yetzer hora. And if we forget the answer, we fail.
Rav Yeruchom Levovitz ztz”l would often tell an amazing story to illustrate an amazing detail in our agency for Hashem. There was an annual market faire in Leipzig, Germany. Jews and non-Jews from all over Europe would descend on this famous city for a number of weeks to do business. Fabric merchants, livestock dealers, you name it, this is where you procured your merchandise and your clients for the next year. One Jew would always go to Leipzig for the faire, but this year he fell ill. He reluctantly sent his wife in his place, hoping that she would be able to make the deals instead of him. He gave her a large amount of money, gave her instructions, and off she went to Leipzig. While there, she was successful in signing contracts with clients and wholesalers. Sooner than expected, she was ready to go back home, but when she tapped her purse at her side, her heart stopped beating. The money she had taken with her, plus the earnings she had made, was missing! Frantically she scrambled around the market scouring the streets for her money, knowing deep down that it was futile. Her desperate eyes were no match for the bustling streets. Finally, after hours, she went back to the inn and put up a sign telling any good and decent finder where she was staying, for one final night in Leipzig. Unbelievably, the next day she heard a knock at her door and was met with a Jew who had found the money. With her shaking hands outstretched, she asked for the money, but the man’s response was harsh and shocking. “I came simply to tell you that the money was found, but by the law of Shulchan Aruch, the money belongs to me.” “What?!” she yelled, “but you know it’s my money!” The man’s answer was like a punch in the stomach: “In an area that is mostly non-Jewish, someone who loses money has instant despair of ever getting it back and the finder is not obligated to return it.” She was stunned, and in a last-ditched effort to retrieve her lost money, they went to the visiting rabbi, none other than Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector ztz”l, the Kovno Rav.
As the Rav listened to the man’s reasoning, he nodded. Very much aware of this halocha, he knew that what the man was saying was, in fact true. The man, however, was taken aback when the Rav ruled that he must return the money to the woman. “But Rabbi, she despaired!” “It is true, indeed, that she despaired,” the Rav replied. “But that was not her money. It belonged to her husband. She might have despaired of getting the money back, but since she was an agent of the husband, she was acting as if she were him. But he never despaired, even though the situation was desperate. Her despair is meaningless. Her husband never despaired.”
Rav Yeruchom would tell this story as an illustration of our roles in this world. We are carrying a soul that we are to use in Hashem’s mission. We are agents of Hashem, and we must remember it. If we act with that in mind, our actions become G-dly, and the world becomes more G-dly. And while we might be confronted with situations that seem desperate, and although we might despair ourselves, our “sender” has not despaired of us and our mission. Our despair is meaningless. Hashem has not despaired of us.