Sermon: Shabbat Lech Lecha – Each of us has a name

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 31 October 2017

L’chol ish yesh shem

Each of us has a name

given us by God

and given us by our father and mother.

Our names are very important to us. They are the way we introduce ourselves to new people, they are how we are communicated with and in part they define our identity. Our friends and family members can play with our names, by giving us nicknames or shortening our names to make them fit our personalities better, and as a way of sharing a little secret, something sacred between you and them.

As most of you know, my name is Hannah Elizabeth Kingston. Like many of you here, there is a story attached to my name. Before I was born I was named ‘Winston’ by my big sister, who was four years old at the time. She confesses now that I was not Winston because of the genius rhyming ‘Winston Kingston’ but in fact because our neighbour had a pet called Winston, and she liked the name. My parents debated long and hard over what to call me, my father wanting to call me Francesca, what a relief he didn’t get his way, because Francesca doesn’t sound right with a lisp! When my due date was scheduled for July 4th, he proposed Liberty Bell, shortened to Libby, which is what I named my first childhood pet, a little black and tan cavalier king charles spaniel.

My middle name Elizabeth was a given, the E at the beginning named after my Grandpa Ernie, who died the year I was born, following the Ashkenazi tradition to name a child after a late relative. How exactly my parents settled on Hannah I will never know, it just fits. My Primary School teacher stated that it was a perfect match, as all Hannah’s are sensitive mummy’s girls just like me.

L’chol ish yesh shem

Each of us has a name

given us by our height and our smile

and given us by our clothing

Our names, in part, define who we are. So how do we deal with the fundamental name changes we go through as our lives progress through their uneven paths. What happens to us, to our personalities and identities, as we take a partners name in marriage, or become Mum or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, go from Miss to Mrs, or get auntie or uncle as a new prefix?

How do we cope with the consequent changes in identity that comes with a new name or title, with the unfounded territory, with the new responsibilities or expectations? How do we need to adapt ourselves to this change? Do we need to change to fit more comfortably into our new names?

L’chol ish yesh shem

Each of us has a name

given us by the stars

and given us by our neighbours

Four months ago I went from being just Hannah, to Rabbi Hannah. I feel full throttle the impacts of a sudden change of name, for with it comes new responsibilities. I often look over my shoulder when someone refers to me as rabbi, expecting someone wiser than me to appear with the answers.

Perhaps at these junctions in our lives, when we take on a new name, we feel similar to our biblical ancestors in this week’s parsha. For this week we join Abram as he leaves behind his childhood and gains a new identity, along with his wife Sarai, who become Abraham and Sarah. Why the change in name? God states to the newly founded Abraham that it is because he is to become the father of a multitude of nations. The French medieval commentator Rashi, adds that originally the resh’ in the name Abram showed that he would only be father to Aram, his native place. His new name is a pun for the Hebrew phrase Av – Rav – am, meaning father of many nations, the ‘resh’ still remains in its original place as a reminder of his past.

Midrash offers another explanation, suggesting that the additional ‘hey’ in Abram and Sarai’s names represents the divine presence in their lives, just as orthodox Jews still use the letter hey to stand for Ha-shem, the name of God in many of their writings. If this is the case, what does it mean for the way Abraham and Sarah now act? If they are constantly reminded of the presence of God in their lives surely their personalities will not remain unchanged?

L’chol ish yesh shem

Each of us has a name

Given us by our failings

and given us by our longing

Abram and Sarai are not the only characters to undergo name changes in our biblical narrative. Jacob becomes Israel due to his struggle with God, and Hosea becomes Joshua. However in every case where a new name is given, it is given by God, the supreme name giver. So in our modern day lives, where God doesn’t speak to us and give us new identities, how can we decide when a new title should be given or a name changed?

When I took on the title of rabbi in the summer, physically placed on my shoulders by my ordaining Rabbi, Charles Middleburgh, I also took on, metaphorically, the names of all the  progressive rabbis ordained before me. I carry their legacy with me, only hoping to continue a small part of their groundbreaking work. With five years of training before I faced my change in identity, I was as prepared as I could ever hope to be. As we take on new titles in life we must feel ready for the unique challenges that come with them. And for the majority of life changes, we are not lucky enough to have a five year preparation window.

L’chol ish yesh shem

Each of us has a name

given us by the sea

and given us by our death.

Inevitably in our lives our names, or titles, will change. And with these changes so will come alterations in the ways we act. However does this fundamentally changed the person behind the name? In the famed words of William Shakespeare,

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’

Our names may evolve, and we may evolve with them. We may become a Rabbi, Doctor, Mrs, mum or dad, grandma or grandpa, but fundamentally we remain the same. I am still Hannah Elizabeth Kingston, ‘H’ to my uncle, Hannah Elizabeth when I’m in trouble. The change in my title will not change the person that I am. It was the same for Abraham and Sarah, and it will be the same for many of us here, and perhaps that is the most important thing of all. Be true to yourself, you only have one chance to make your mark.