What's in a name?
Shana tova umetuka! – It is a great privilege for me to address this community at the conclusion of the year now ending and the start of a new year, and I want to thank Rabbi Robuck and you, the congregation here this evening, most sincerely for the honour. What a year we conclude! To use one of our late Queen Elizabeth II’s most famous quotes, this has truly been an annus horribilis. In so many ways: with COVID pandemic, dreadful fires and floods, the war in Ukraine, economic upheavals worldwide, ongoing persecutions of minorities in China and elsewhere around world, the ever-growing refugee crisis; the passing of so many honoured and beloved souls abroad as well as in Australia; and in our own home at TBI, the struggle we’ve faced with the breakdown in trust, friendship and simple civility within our sacred congregation.
Now we stand on the portal of a new year. On this day, every year, we celebrate the creation of adam (Adam), humankind, and with adam our humanity, that which makes us uniquely human, that which sets us apart from the rest of creation. What is this unique quality? We get a clue from the story of Adam’s beginnings. When Adam is formed from the dust of the earth and God breathes life into him, God sees that it is not good for Adam to be alone. But before fashioning for Adam a mate, Chava (Eve), from his side, he sends Adam forth in the Garden of Eden to name all the creatures he sees there. It is this gift, the ability to give names to what we see and experience, that is our unique quality. By naming the world of things and experience around us, we play a significant part in fashioning and moulding the universe in which we live.
That’s why names are so significant in Torah and indeed in our own lives. We use them, the language of definition, to structure our social worlds. The very name Adam, derived from adamah, the dust of the earth, is an example of this. From dust we come, to dust we return. That name, Adam, dust, signifies one essential part of our nature. But Adam’s female consort, Chava, signifies life, God’s breath of life. That is our other essential quality. Not only are we alive, but we are aware of being alive. That awareness is captured in our ability to give names to the world around us.
As the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik recognised, basing his observations on this very story in Torah, it is by giving names to others that we form and fashion our relationships with the world in which we live. It is by the act of naming that we overcome or transcend our isolation or aloneness – what Soloveitchik called “loneliness”. Through the act of naming, the other becomes a part of our universe of experience. And so the world around us becomes a home for us. We feel less isolated and more at home in it because we know its names.
In tomorrow’s Torah reading we shall hear the story of Sarah and Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael. Two wives, two sons, both sons from a single father, Abraham. Sarah, concerned about the threat that Ishmael presents to her own son Isaac and his inheritance, calls upon Abraham to banish Hagar and her son, to send them into the wilderness to certain death. Hagar despairs in the wilderness but a messenger of God hears Ishmael’s cry and provides water for them, saving their lives and enabling their story to continue.
What strikes me about this tale is the relationship between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah never uses Hagar’s name; she calls her only “the slave woman”. To Sarah, Hagar has no name, she is robbed of her personality; instead, she has only a description based on her inferior social position: “that slave woman”. It’s like labelling someone who has come to Australia seeking refuge and protection a “refugee”, and regularly using that label instead of their name when speaking about them. It dehumanises the person to label them in this way. It reduces their awesome humanity to a single feature, an accident of life. In Martin Buber’s powerful terminology, it portrays them as an “It” rather than a “Thou”, an object rather than a human being like ourselves. By naming them: Amir, Mustafa, Maryam, Fatimah, we come to “know” them and acknowledge their individuality and their personhood.
But Hagar is not simply a slave; she is, worse, an Egyptian slave. Any reference to Egypt in our ancestors’ stories is immensely significant. It resonates with our people’s experience in Egypt centuries later, when we were bonded slaves to Pharaoh. By calling her Egyptian, Hagar is portrayed as the ultimate outsider within the Hebrew society that is forming around Abraham. Certain descriptive names we ourselves use deliberately factionalise the community and exclude those we deem beyond the pale. In the light of Hagar’s “othering” as an Egyptian slave woman, her name “Hagar” takes on special meaning. Using the same Hebrew consonants, Hagar is understood to be “Ha-ger”, the stranger, the one who is not one of us – the alien. Later, the Torah will teach us over and over again to care for the stranger, ha-ger, to treat the stranger with dignity, to feed and clothe them and so overcome their alien-ness, their stranger-hood. In this way, ironically, the Torah portrays Hagar sympathetically, even while her story is one of banishment and rejection. I think of these teachings every time I hear of a food delivery being made by Project Dignity to a family of people in Essendon or Dandenong or places even further afield who have come here from Afghanistan or Iran or Ukraine to seek refuge in our “lucky country”. It is almost as though, in exhorting us to care for the stranger, the Torah is remembering Hagar and her humiliation before Sarah carried out with the collusion of Abraham, and making amends for it.
It is the names we give to others that honour and value them, or demean and humiliate them. To me, this has been the most disturbing element in the saga in our synagogue over the past several months. The way we choose to name others is crucial either to bring them into our circle, or to exclude them; to offer them a home, or to send them out into the wilderness; to form relationships of caring and trust with them, or to exile them from our lives. The poet Zelda says, l’chol ish yesh shem: “to every person there is a name, given them by the stars and given by our friends; given by our sins and given by our yearnings; given by our enemies and given by love….” It is our choice to give names of hatred, or names of love. Zelda realised this, within her deeply conflicted Israeli context. And I’m sure she also knew that once a harsh name has been given, it is hard, oh so hard, to replace it with another, kinder, gentler, more welcoming name.
If this is to be a year of healing, of restoration and even redemption for us, then I believe we must make a concerted effort to change the names – the language, the descriptors – we use to talk about one another. Thankfully I have already heard it said that there is no more “us” and “them”, only “we”. That’s an encouraging start. But much more care needs to be taken to control our speech. We know the lesson well: the fact that we can say something nasty about another person within our community doesn’t mean that we should say it. Every one of us needs to attend to this. Fortunately, we have models within our community whom we can follow, individuals who somehow have managed to avoid falling into the negative naming trap. They are my “mitzvah heroes”, members of our community who truly teach by example. I imagine they’ve succeeded in this by focussing not on the foibles and weaknesses that we all carry within us, but rather, like that first Adam, on the miracle of relationship that enables us to overcome our aloneness and our distance from one another. That means valuing each other for the gifts, the blessings, we bring to our chevra. These include the blessings of trust, friendship and civility.
This is my prayer for the community for the new year: that we name each other with compassion and with love, so that none of us ever again feels like a stranger in our own home.
L’shana tova tikateiyvu, May we be inscribed for a good year.