Sign In Forgot Password

"Speaking Your Truth, Standing Your Ground, Honoring Your True Name"

06/23/2022 05:01:44 PM


Rabbi Steven Folberg

In the anthology of midrash called Koheleth Rabbah ("The Great Midrash on Ecclesiastes") we find a well-known rabbinic proverb about names:

“A person has three names:
one that they are called by their father and mother;
one that people know them by,
and one that they acquire for themselves.
The best of these names is the one we acquire for ourselves.”

The significance of the first two of these names is clear.

Our parents give us a name, chosen for its meaning, or perhaps for the way it honors a cherished ancestor. Some of us even are named after a musician or other celebrity that our parents liked! This is our "original,” name, the name that launches us into the world.

"The name the people know us by" could be a nickname given to us by our friends. It grows out of our relationships with others.

But what did our teachers mean when they spoke about the name "that we acquire for ourselves?"

The consensus among some of our commentators is that this is a name that connects with our true essence, the person that we really are, or are genuinely meant to be. This is a name that is revealed to us as we live and learn, grow and change, rise and fall, over and over again in the course of a lifetime. It is "the best of" these names. And some of our commentators suggest that this third, "truest" name is the type that is revealed to several characters in the Torah when God, or an angel, changes the person's name.

Abram's name is changed to Abraham.
Sarai's name is changed to Sarah.
Jacob's name is changed to Israel.

In each case, the new, "essential" name contains one of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey that comprise the Hebrew name for God that we read as "Adonai.” If these name changes indeed reveal biblical character’s true name, then God is revealing to that person their  essential name that grounds their life in that greater Reality that some of us call God, or Truth or The Infinite.

In this weekend's Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha, Moses is commanded by God to send twelve spies or scouts, one from each of the twelve tribes, to reconnoiter the land of Israel that they are about to enter. Only two of the twelve spies come back with a positive report. The other ten return with the message that entering this land is a suicide mission and that they will inevitably fail and be enslaved or killed. The Israelites believe the pessimists, and it is on the basis of this episode that God decides to make the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty more years so that the next generation can enter the land.

In the midst of all this drama, it's easy to overlook the fact that one of the two confident, optimistic scouts is also given a new name, this time by Moses. Hoshea (“Salvation”) is given the name "Joshua" ("God saves").

What's the difference between the two? Specifically, what is it that God saves Joshua from?

The great commentator Rashi says, "“Moses prayed, ‘Adonai yoshi’acha me-etzat ha-meraglim,’ ‘May God save you from the opinions of the other spies!’”

Moses’ prayer is for God to help Joshua to maintain his integrity and stick with the truth, even when almost everyone around him is saying something else.

So, there is an element of being close to God which is about knowing your truth, and holding fast to it, even when there’s pressure from the outside to abandon what you know to be right or true.

I think Moses changes Joshua's name in this way because in his own lifetime, he has learned that leadership is hard, and that speaking an unpopular truth may expose you to ridicule, hatred and even physical danger.

We see this in Saturday's portion, when Joshua and Caleb brush aside the negativity of the other ten scouts and try to rally the people to enter the land. How did the people respond? The Torah says that they threatened to "pelt them with stones." (As Bob Dylan might have said, "They'll stone you when you try to lead the way…")

And if, like me, you have been glued to the January 6 Select Committee hearings, you have heard the riveting testimony of both civil servants and elected officials who were threatened with physical violence and death because they spoke the truth and refused to "play ball with" the plot to overthrow the 2020 presidential election.

Who am I?

What do I stand for?

What are the boundaries I refuse to cross?

These questions are embedded in "the name we acquire for ourselves, the best name of all."

Have a beautiful and restful Shabbat,

Rabbi Steve Folberg

Tue, December 6 2022 12 Kislev 5783