It is rare that we go anywhere with all six of our girls together. When we do, we usually turn heads and draw all kinds of unsolicited comments, observations, and advice. Perhaps nowhere does the image of six sisters ages 3 to 14 walking down a hallway together get more attention than in the maternity ward when they are on their way to visit their new brother. At one point when visiting the hospital earlier this week, I let the girls stand outside the nursery and look through the glass while I talked with Yocheved in her room.
When I came out to check on them, an African American security guard was standing outside the nursery. She inquired whether she could ask me a personal question. “Sure,” I said, “I am a community Rabbi, I am used to people asking all kinds of personal questions about my life that they would never ask anyone else.”
However, she really caught me off guard when she asked me whether his new name has religious significance. Having not given him a name yet nor even hinting to his sisters what names we are considering, I was very taken aback by the question. I asked her, “What do you think his name is?” She responded, “Your daughter told me his name is Matzah Ball and I am just curious, I thought Matzah Ball was a kind of food and I didn’t realize it was a religious Jewish name.” I looked over at one of my daughters flashing a big smile. She proudly said, “What, Abba? I want his name to be Matzah Ball.”
In Judaism, names matter and carry with them great significance. More than simply an arbitrary word in order to best identify someone, we believe that a name is a description and has an impact on the very essence, identity and destiny of a person. In last week’s Parsha, Bereishis, we read about how God thought it would not be good for Adom to be alone. The next pasuk (2:19) tells us: “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.”
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that when Adom gives a name to each animal, he is describing their essence and their traits and he therefore understands that none qualify to be his mate. For example, in describing the donkey he writes, “He recognized in his wisdom that it is the most simple, foolish, and stubborn of all creatures, drawn after its desires, and this is why he called it chamor,” from the root chomer, meaning “material.”
Names are not only descriptive, but they can be proscriptive as well. The Talmud says that parents receive a portion of prophecy when they chose a name for their child. Some name after a loved one hoping the child will develop the same positive attributes. Others name after a Biblical or Historic personality with the prayer that the child will emerge to be similar to the giant for whom he or she is named. And yet others chose a name whose translation means something special and describes their joy in welcoming their newborn into the world.
What does our name say about us? Have we lived up to the person for whom we were named? Does our name accurately describe who we have become or who we strive to be? There is one more question we must ask about our names, and it is the most important question of all – Do we have a good name, a sheim tov? Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, the wisest of all men taught us that a sheim tov, a good name is finer than shemen tov, fragrant oil. Moreover, a sheim tov, a good name says the Mishna in Avos, is oleh al gabeihen, stands above everything else.
We can’t control the name we were given, but we can decide to earn a good name through our behavior, actions and character. Our reputations will take us much farther in life than any other aspect of our names.
My son will be given his name on Monday, please God. Until then I can only hope and pray that my Matzah Ball, together with all of our children, will lead a life of distinction, and that they will each earn a sheim tov, a good name and reputation, that will carry them far in life.