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Carrying on the Legacy of the Past

avatar by Pini Dunner

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Last Thursday, I crept quietly into a room at my daughter’s apartment in New York to catch my first glimpse of our first grandchild, a tiny beautiful baby girl, born the Saturday before.

A couple of days earlier, my son-in-law named the baby Miriam Emunah at his synagogue in Queens, after being called up to the Torah, as is our tradition.

Miriam was my mother’s name, and the baby was named after her. My mother passed away quite suddenly just over 12 years ago at the age of 65. Born in Rotterdam in 1941 while Holland was occupied by the Nazis, she was adopted by a gentile couple who masqueraded her as their own baby. This incredibly generous act undoubtedly saved my mother’s life.

After the Allied victory against Germany in 1945, my mother was reunited with her parents, who had miraculously survived the war by hiding in a false closet at the home of a gentile friend.

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Only recently, I discovered that my grandfather would occasionally sneak out of hiding to visit my mother. Although he did not reveal his identity to her, pretending to be a business associate of her foster father, he made sure to visit so that he could keep up as his baby daughter grew into a little young girl.

It is a strange feeling to see baby Miri, as she will be called, and to know that she will bear my mother’s name for the rest of her life. Jewish tradition places a lot of meaning in someone’s name, particularly if they are named after someone significant — whether it be a departed loved one or a great historical figure. Somehow their life is expected to echo the life of their namesake, or at the very least, they are expected to emulate the qualities of the person they are named after.

And very often, as time unfolds, one may observe the effect this has on people’s lives — often positive, but occasionally negative, as they struggle to match up to the burden of expectations that accompany their name.

The importance of a name is not an idea limited to Jewish tradition. Numerous studies have shown how much a name can affect success in life. In 2011, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published a paper that included information from numerous studies proving that one’s name impacts how one may be perceived, even before people meet you.

The authors suggest that easily pronounced names “are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names,” which means, in practical terms, that you are more likely to get a job if your name has one or two syllables, rather than three or more.

Meanwhile, a 2009 study by a team from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania showed that “unpopular names are positively correlated with juvenile delinquency.” After producing irrefutable proof of this trend, the authors propose that “adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships, [and] juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they … dislike their names.”

The flip side of this phenomenon was presented in a 2013 German study that concluded, quite remarkably, that Germans with noble-sounding surnames, such as Kaiser (“emperor”), König (“king”), and Fürst (“prince”), are more likely to have senior roles at work than those with last names that indicate everyday occupations, such as Koch (“cook”), Bauer (“farmer”), and Becker (“baker”). This is despite the fact that the noble-sounding surname is not evidence of noble descent, or any kind of superiority.

The subject of names comes up quite unexpectedly at the beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayishlach. On the night before Jacob’s highly anticipated meeting with his brother Esau, he is suddenly set upon by a mysterious individual, who wrestles with him until dawn. Before departing, he asks Jacob to reveal his name, and upon hearing it, promptly informs him that from now on Jacob will be known as Israel — a Hebrew portmanteau that carries the message that Jacob had “wrestled with the Divine and with humans, and prevailed.”

In response, Jacob asks his mysterious wrestling opponent — who the Midrash reveals was Esau’s angel alter-ego — to reveal his name. But the angel replies (Gen. 39:29): “why are you asking me for my name,” and then promptly leaves without answering. The commentaries all puzzle over his elusive response.

The legendary mussar luminary Rabbi Leib Chasman offers a powerful solution to the angel’s evasion. By not answering Jacob’s question, the angel actually answered it. A name defines a person’s positive essence and potential. The angel who fought with Jacob embodied the opposite of everything positive; as Esau’s protector, he personified the idea of “yetzer hara” (evil inclination), which has no identity of its own.

In spiritual terms yetzer hara is the epitome of nothing, a pyrotechnic display of smoke and mirrors. In the realm of God and truth yetzer hara does not actually exist, and therefore has no name. It is as a result of this that one may find it hard to identify the yetzer hara, and therefore avoid it. At the same time, it puts everything associated with yetzer hara into perspective — with no real substance, it is capricious, ephemeral, and ultimately utterly pointless.

When we carry the name of a beloved family member, or a revered Biblical figure, or — as is often the case — both, we carry with it the potential of everything positive that characterized their lives into ours.

My mother was a gentle, generous soul, who lived to do good and to share the goodness she had been given by God. Little Miri is lucky to carry her name, but more than that, she is lucky to be the vessel of that positive potential.

Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior spiritual leader of the Beverly Hills Synagogue.

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