Parashat Lech Lecha

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about names and legacies.  Such is the nature of the last seven weeks in the life of my family:  my elderly grandmother passed away, later that same week my second son was born, and earlier this week my sister gave birth to her first child, a girl, who will be named this Shabbat in Jerusalem.

It is at these ultimate life-cycle moments – births and deaths – that names are given added meaning.  As Tamar and I went back and forth over naming possibilities for both our sons, we invested in so much in the unknown future:  attempting to find the right way to convey our hopes for the future while being incapable of knowing anything about who our children might grow up to be.  Similarly, the legacies of our beloved family members, close friends, and the resonances of Biblical characters and liturgical allusions all danced around those conversations.  To bookend, one of the lasting memories of my childhood is of my father, a pulpit Rabbi, sitting at his computer or our kitchen table writing a eulogy, in which he always makes sure to prominently display the name, in Hebrew and English of the deceased.  It is that name that will eventually be displayed on the gravestone.

This week’s parashah is also about names and legacies.  Near the end of Lech L’cha Abram and Sarai have their names changed by God to Abraham and Sarah, reflecting a change in status and role.  Throughout the weekly reading, from the first verses until the last, we are introduced as much to Abraham’s potential and destiny as we are to who he is, the original Jew.  Famously, in the poetic opening of the parashah, God tells Abram:  ואגדלה שמך – “I will make your name great."  A hyper-literal Rabbinic reading of this verse understands it to mean that the shorter אברם/Abram will be lengthened to אברהם/Abraham.  More metaphorically, we can take this promise with its partners, that God will make Abram into "a great nation,” “a blessing,” and that “those who bless [him] will be blessed; those who curse [him] will be cursed." 

Names and legacies also permeate the culture of Ramah Wisconsin.  One of our paramount tasks at the outset of each summer is to learn each others names, first the names of all the staff during our preparatory week, then the names of campers in our cabins, aidot, and throughout camp.  During the eleven summers I spent working under Rabbi Soloff’s directorship, we came to expect the appearance during Staff Week of the Israeli poet Zelda’s masterpiece לכל איש יש שם, "Every Person Has a Name,” that explores all the different people in our lives and actions we do that give us a variety of “names."  (You can read the poem in Hebrew or English.)

At camp, our names and our legacies intermingle.  We acquire nicknames, which sometimes become the primary way people know us.  We have the opportunity, each and every year as campers and staff members, to remake our reputations and legacies.  We become, eventually, a part of one aidah as campers, associated with a collective identity.  If we are blessed to have the opportunity to return for many years on staff, we may adopt additional identities as proud members of the aidot defined not by us or our peers but by our campers.  In the end it is our names which outlast us at camp, displayed individually on our cabin plaques and on the hallowed walls of the Nivonim cabins,

The act of naming is essentially of ownership; Adam’s role as steward of the Earth is established by his naming of the animals (Genesis 2:19).  Interestingly, God does not command Adam to name the animals but, as the text reports, follows Adam’s lead in naming them as Adam called each and every one.

This Shabbat, as my sister and brother-in-law celebrate their becoming a family and give their daughter a name and the mantle of legacy that name will evoke, I wish them the best as they begin to be parents in so many different ways. 

And for all the solemnity and seriousness of the moment and these decisions, it is my twenty-plus year relationship with Ramah that continually reminds me to approach the world playfully.  I still regularly correspond with former counselors who call me by nicknames long-forgotten by the rest of the world.  And I think of the fun of names and legacies when I recall with different generations of Ramahniks their memories, the names – official and casual – to refer to different characters and aspects of the camp experience.  In the debates many will have about various aspects of Ramah legacies:  basketball teams, musicals, artists, supportive communities, and more.

And as Tamar and I sit down for Shabbat dinner this evening with two boys, known alternatively by the names we called them between their births and their brises (Peanut and Jellybean, respectively), their full names in English (Samuel Hirsch and Michael Noam) and Hebrew (Shimon Chayim and Meecha’el Noam) and countless permutations (Sam, Sammy, Shimmy, Sha"ch, Miggy, Mickey, Mike, Mikey, and many many more), I will do my best to remind myself of why we are so focused on names at the very beginning and very end of our lives:  because at every moment in between we are and should be too busy living life to the fullest, whimsically interacting with each other so that our names and legacies reach their fullest potential.  
Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob Cytryn, Director