Drash on Parashat Shemot 2018

Drash on Parashat Shemot 2018

Rabbi David Kunin
Jewish Community of Japan

This week as we read ayleh shemot (These are the names…) we begin a new book (Shemot, Exodus) of the Torah. Though portraying a desperate time in our history – our enslavement in Egypt – it begins a book replete with possibilities. After nearly four hundred years in Egypt our ancestors have become a people, ready to take their place on the stage of the world. Yet at this moment of opportunity we begin with a list of names. Names which tie us to the past, but more importantly look to the future. Our ancestors came to Egypt with Hebrew names, and as we will learn (as the book progresses) they also left, with one exception, with Hebrew names. Through this they made an important statement not only of from where they came, but also where they hoped to go.

In our tradition names continue to have great importance and can be seen as an expression of the partnership with God and our parents as they together bring us into existence. Biblically our names can be a revelation of our essence, indicating potential aspects of our personality and deeds, and for the rabbis our name was the key to our soul (in Hebrew the middle letter of neshama (soul) are shin and mem, spelling out shemHebrew for ‘name”).   Our naming is the beginning of our personal Jewish story, and as we live, we write our own book exemplified through the potential expressed in our name. The midrash teaches that when each of us comes before the Divine throne in judgement, the most important question we will be asked is, “What is your name (encompassing all these ramifications)?”

Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition also teaches us that names are important, in their meanings, connections with past generations, and in their letter combinations.  The European tradition of naming new babies after recently deceased relatives, thus perpetuating the name is seen as a unique way to honour relatives. It is believed that the new child will be influenced by the merit of the good name achieved by his/her eponymous progenitor and will also add through his/her own actions to the spiritual merit of past and future generations. 

Wow naming is not as simple as looking at an online list!

Never having the opportunity to name a child, I have named quite a number of animal companions, but for the most part I never gave deep thought to the choices. Yet, as we named a new puppy here in Japan, after the tragic loss of a very young dog named Jerry, I began to confront the hidden importance of names. In the European Jewish tradition, it has become customary to give the child the name of a recently deceased relative, to perpetuate the name in Israel. This solution would have seen a fourth Jerry, yet this proved problematic. My wife Shelley was unwilling to reuse this unlucky name, though I was convinced that this was a perfect way to trick the malech hamavet (the Angel of Death). After all, why would he expect another “Jerry?”  But if there is anything that I have learned in the last many years of marriage, it is that compromise is the obvious and necessary solution, and indeed we actually both also agreed that the puppy’s name should also reflect his Japanese birth heritage.   Thus, the name we came upon was Jiro, common in Japan, and with a close nod to the lost name of “Jerry.”

Indeed, Shelley is more in tune with kabbalah and Jewish naming traditions than I am.  In cases of tragic death, it was traditional to change a single letter, as a means of affecting tikkun (repair) to the name.  Thus, Jiro is an appropriate tikkun for Jerry’s (two identically named forbearers who died tragically) new gilgul.

It turns out, however, that there is a lot more to Japanese names than meets the eye; they are far more complicated than Hebrew or English names, even though middle initials are totally absent.   Japanese names can sound identical and yet be spelled in a whole variety of ways.  Most names are constructed of two kanji (Chinese characters), and herein lies the difficulty.  There are many kanji that share the same sound but have entirely different meanings.  A parent, therefore, may even take a common name (such as Jiro) and choose a different constellation of meanings based on the kanji chosen to spell out the name.

But wait! If this was not complex enough, there was also another consideration, beyond and perhaps even transcending the meaning of the particular kanji.  Luck is built not only into meaning, but also and much more strongly in the number of strokes correctly used to write each kanji character.  Seimei Handan or name fortune-telling, quantifies the number of strokes from very lucky to horrible.  

We knew that it was extremely important to choose just the right kanji for Jiro, as we want him to have a long and fulfilling life.   We had quite a few choices for each of the four kanji in the name Kunin Jiro (the family name comes first), so the process was not quick. In the end we chose 救 kyu (meaning heal, help or save) 忍 nen (meaning endure or stealth) 慈 ji (cherish or give love) and 朗 ro (cheerful) To us it was beautiful both in shape and meaning.  Luckily the stroke count was also almost uniformly good. After two years it is becoming clearer and clearer that we chose a great and appropriate name for our puppy.

“These are the names…” Names tie us to past and future and express our parents’ hopes and dreams for us and the world. But they are only an expression of potential. We must live our names and make choices which allow all their potential to bloom. Jiro is now a real presence in our lives.  He now transcends all hopes and auguries, and he like the rest of us – with the help of friends and relatives – will have the chance to make his own realities.


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