The calligrapher had gotten my Hebrew name wrong! Not mine, but my dad’s, which of course is part of mine. His name was Chayyim Aharon Leib, and somehow the bet at the end of “Leib” had been written as a dalet instead. The registrar didn’t think it was such a big deal, but I threw such a stink that they made the calligrapher change it before the faculty signed it and presented it to me at Cincinnati’s historic Plum Street Temple that Shabbat.
Why was I so upset? It was just a typo, after all. But to me, the name was important — my name was important: Chanya Reizel bat Chayyim Aharon Leib v’ Fruma Rivka. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it takes up two whole lines on the smicha certificate. But it’s who I am. Chanya Reizel, named after two great-grandmothers, matriarchs from the “Old Country” who held the family together during an era of turmoil and dislocation. Chayyim Aharon Leib, my father Arthur Lewis, the “Chayyim” added by his family after he survived a deadly disease in early childhood. Though he never would be a totally healthy person, his perseverance over the years compelled my husband to add “Aharon” to his own name after my father passed way. And Fruma Rivka, Carol Ruth, not the woman who bore me but the woman who has been my true mother from my early teens, the woman who loved my dad with all of his difficulties for all those years.
Yes, the name had to be perfect.
The importance of family names and family genealogy in our Jewish tradition is clear from the fact that the biblical book we know by its Greek name of Exodus is, in the Hebrew, Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names. And Shemot really is a more appropriate title because, before we can get to the story of the Exodus, we have some unfinished business left from Sefer Bereshit, the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs from Genesis. But here’s the problem: If we accept the concept that the Torah never wastes words, never gives us anything superfluous or without its own meaning, then why would the Torah recapitulate in Shemot chapter one the genealogy that it already gave us (in much more detail) in Genesis 46?
According to Rashi, the difference is that, in Bereshit, Jacob’s family members who went down to Egypt were still alive; here at the beginning of Shemot, they are named in death:
“This is to teach us that God so loved them that they were likened to the stars, for in their rising and in their setting God too musters them by number and by their names, as it is written (Isaiah 40:26), And who created these? The One who sends out their host by number, who calls them all by name.”
With this reiteration of genealogy, then, Torah teaches us that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are no less beloved by God — or by us — after we lose them. And even if we have not even known them in life, we are linked to them through our family names, for often we are given those names in the hopes that the traits that made them beloved in life will surface in us as well.
Nachmanides makes this point, too. He teaches that the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Bereshit are formative for their offspring and hint at what is to come; Sefer Shemot brings to fruition the stories of the future generations that stem from these hints and allusions. Whoever we are, whatever we become — a hint of that is always evident in the names on our certificates of milah or naming, our ketubot, and — for some of us — our smicha. So it’s proper to insist that they get it right.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)