Call Me By Your Name

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Have you ever imagined yourself with a different name? My grandmother wanted to shed her Yiddish name and be known as Shirley, an American sounding first name. For similar reasons my father changed his surname from Kramowitz to Krame. Their motivations reflected the values of assimilation. Yet, name changing is also deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. And with the proper intention, a name change can transform us. From Torah this week we learn that resetting a person’s name can not only elevate a person’s soul but is a marker of greatness. 

In parshat Sh’lach, Moses “names” Hosea ben Nun to lead a band of scouts into the land of Canaan. All of those who are familiar with the text know that the spies will return with a false report, afraid of the people they encountered and lacking in faith that they can conquer the land. Theirs’ is a sinfulness that damns the people to wander for 38 more years. But Hosea ben Nun is not among those sinful scouts. Just a few verses earlier, Moses had changed Hosea’s name to Yehoshua (Joshua) by adding a yud. The yud added represents God, just as yud is the first letter of God’s name. With that reminder, Joshua is sent on the scouting mission. By taking God into the name, Joshua is sanctified and guided in his service as a leader. And he is made more resilient.

Not every name is easily upgraded with the addition of the “yud” of the Divine name. But each of us has the opportunity to incorporate Godliness into our lives if we consider our names to designate us as representatives of God. Perhaps that is an insight as to why the protection of a name is so important in our tradition. We are taught to value names. Names are a portal to righteousness. We do not take God’s name in vain and we do not slander the name of our peers. We learn at Pirke Avot 4:17 “Rabbi Shimon said, there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. And the crown of a good name is superior to them all.”

And for those who would take on leadership roles, their name or title can serve as a powerful reminder to know before Whom they stand and Whom they serve. Whether leaders are named or elected, how would it be if each considered their oath of office as if spiritually incorporating a “yud” into their name?

A name change might not be sufficient for those who are power hungry or lead without skill. But for the true public servant, the lesson we learn from Joshua and the scouts is that we need leaders who operate from faith and not fear, from the pursuit of Godliness and not greed. Perhaps there would be far better Government if our leaders had names that reminded them that their service was named by God.

R’ Evan J. Krame