Making a Name for Yourself*

Numbers 1

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,

2 Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls;

3 From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies.

4 And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one head of the house of his fathers.

5 And these are the names of the men that shall stand with you: of the tribe of Reuben; Elizur the son of Shedeur.

6 Of Simeon; Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai.

7 Of Judah; Nahshon the son of Amminadab.

8 Of Issachar; Nethaneel the son of Zuar.

9 Of Zebulun; Eliab the son of Helon.

10 Of the children of Joseph: of Ephraim; Elishama the son of Ammihud: of Manasseh; Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur.

11 Of Benjamin; Abidan the son of Gideoni.

12 Of Dan; Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai.

13 Of Asher; Pagiel the son of Ocran.

14 Of Gad; Eliasaph the son of Deuel.

15 Of Naphtali; Ahira the son of Enan.

16 These were the renowned of the congregation, princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel.

The story is told of three enterprising Jewish brothers who approached Henry Ford at his manufacturing plant in Dearborn, Michigan, on the hottest day in the summer of 1937. They demonstrated for him their new invention, a mechanical system that could be installed in every automobile to regulate the temperature, and produce a cool, comfortable ride for all the passengers in the vehicle. The astute Ford recognized the marketing potential of this brilliant discovery, and came to an agreement with the brothers that he would have exclusive rights to introduce the air-conditioning systems into the products of his assembly line.

After the financial arrangements had been agreed upon, there remained one point of contention: The brothers insisted that their contribution to the product be duly acknowledged with a small label reading "Cohen Brothers Cooling System." Needless to say, this proposal was anathema to Henry Ford, the unabashed anti-Semite who had been responsible for the distribution of that infamous forgery the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in the pages of his Dearborn Independent."

After several hours of additional haggling, they arrived at a compromise, and agreed that only the first names of the three brothers would appear on the label, but not their blatantly Jewish surname.

And that, says the story, is why from that day onwards, every automobile that issued from the Ford plant has the names of the three Cohen brothers neatly displayed beneath the air conditioner controls: NORM, HI and MAX

From this apocryphal tale, we learn something of the importance of names and the ways in which they are presented to the world.

The opening verses of the Book of Numbers devote a great deal of attention to lists of names, as the Torah enumerates the nesi'im, princes of the tribes and describes the positioning of the various tribes and clans in the Israelite encampment in the wilderness.

Almost all of the princes' names include one or more divine names or epithets, whether in the person's own name or in that of his father, by means of which they are all identified. The most frequent is "E-l," but we also encounter such godly attributes as "Zur" (Rock), "Shalom" (Peace), "Sha-ddai" (Almighty) and others.

The thirteenth-century Spanish exegete Rabbi Bahya ben Asher placed special mystical significance on the fact that the Tabernacle was flanked on each of its four sides by a tribe whose prince's name contained the theophoric "E-l."

The abode of the divine presence thereby came to be surrounded by individuals who symbolically bore the name of the God, like a great king encompassed by a uniformed honour guard.

A radically different conclusion seems to emerge when focus on the less etherial implications of the story.

As we examine the names of the twelve princes, we come to realize that they are, for the most part, a very obscure bunch, who appear collectively in ceremonial roles, but have no real distinctive identities or accomplishments by which they can be recognized as individuals.

There are, according to Jewish tradition, two exceptions to this generalization, representing contrasting moral extremes:

  1. Nahshon son of Aminidab of the tribe of Judah. According to a Talmudic legend, he was the first Israelite to wade up to his neck into depths of the Red Sea, confident that the Lord would perform a miracle to rescue the people from approaching Egyptian armies.
  2. Another rabbinic tradition identified Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai with the evil Zimri, the prince of Reuben who would later provoke God's wrath by consorting with a Midianite princess.

Note that Shelumiel holds the record for theophoric elements in his name: Shalom, E-l, Zur and Sh-ddai are all squeezed into his name and patronymic. Somehow, all of this nominal holiness could not provide foolproof safeguards that he would conduct himself in an appropriately godly manner.

On the other hand, the heroic Nahshon bears not a single divine name or attribute. Quite the contrary, the most conspicuous component in his name is the word nahash, "serpent," an image whose biblical associations are hardly flattering.

At the most fundamental level, this provides us with an instructive cautionary example of the perils of labeling people based on external criteria. I presume that none of us is entirely immune from this temptation, which seems particularly pervasive in the domain of Jewish religious and communal life. How often do we facilely pass judgment on people based on superficial classifications, denominational affiliations, dress codes or head coverings! It is so much easier going through the difficult work of familiarizing ourselves with their characters and values.

The sages of the Talmud and Midrash liked to identify obscure biblical names with more prominent figures. When they indulged in this interpretative exercise, they employed a standardized formula: "X was the person's real name, and why was he / she also referred to as Y?"; and then they proceed to demonstrate (often by means of audacious puns and word-plays) that the "Y" name is a descriptive title that comes to designate the person's deeds or character traits.

This formula is applied to Shelumiel-Zimri, in order to show that the name Zimri was, in a sense, an epithet that was acquired by the prince as the result of his immoral and blasphemous actions.

Reflecting on these facts, we realize that in most cases, people do not name themselves, but are assigned names by their parents. As such, the names often reflect the hopes and dreams that the parents hold out for their children, or the moral qualities of revered ancestors or teachers.

The ideals that are embodied in a person's given names can provide precious guidance in setting appropriate goals for one's life. However, as we learn from the precedents of Shelumiel and Nahshon, a person's name is not an irreversible destiny.

Father Zurishaddai's dreams that his offspring would live up to the godliness of his name were ultimately brought to naught by Shelumiel's own bad choices.

On the other hand, though Aminadab may have expected no more of his son than that he would develop an interest in herpetology, Nahshon was able to transcend the limits of his name and, through his profound courage and faith, make a name for himself

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*Sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, May 31 2003.