“What’s in a Name?—a Change of  Destiny”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, we read of two major covenants that G-d sealed with Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham). In the first covenant, known as בְּרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים “Brit bayn ha’b’tah’rim,” the Covenant between the Pieces, G-d confirms that Abram and his children will experience exile, enslavement and persecution. After 400 years, his descendants will eventually return with great wealth to the land of Canaan, which they will inherit for themselves and for future generations. The second covenant is the Covenant of Circumcision, requiring all the male members of Abram’s household to be circumcised on the foreskin of their flesh. As part of this covenant, Abram receives a new name and a new destiny.

In Genesis 17:4-5, G-d says to Abram, אֲנִי, הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ; וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם. וְלֹא יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם, וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ, As for Me, this is My covenant with you. Your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of a multitude of nations.

G-d also promises Abraham that he will be exceedingly fruitful and that many nations and kings will emerge from him. G-d confirms that His covenant will be between Abraham and his offspring throughout the generations for an everlasting covenant, and assures Abraham that he and his offspring will be given the entire land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.

According to the Hebrew calculation, this all occurred in the Hebrew year 2047, calculated from the creation of the world. At the time, Abraham was 99 years old, Sarah was 89 years old and Ishmael was 13 years old. 24 years had passed since Abraham had set forth for the Promised Land from Haran, and 13 years had gone by since the birth of Ishmael. Sarah’s proposal to Abraham that her husband bear children through her handmaiden, Hagar, had been a dismal failure.

In parashat Lech Lecha, Sarai, Abraham’s wife, also has her name and destiny changed. The Torah, in Genesis 17:15-16 states, שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ, לֹא תִקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי, כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ. וּבֵרַכְתִּי אֹתָהּ, וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן; וּבֵרַכְתִּיהָ וְהָיְתָה לְגוֹיִם, מַלְכֵי עַמִּים מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ, G-d said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife–-do not call her “Sarai,” for “Sarah” is her name. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son through her; I will bless her and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples will rise from her.

The great Bible scholar and historian, Nahum M. Sarna, in his fascinating and erudite book Understanding Genesis, explains the significance of names in the ancient Near East, their meanings, and the implication of a change in name. Professor Sarna asserts that in the psychology of the ancient world, a name was not only a convenient means of identification. In fact, Sarna maintains that, “The name of a man was intimately involved in the very essence of his being, and inextricably intertwined with his personality.” Dr. Sarna notes that in the Genesis creation story, G-d caringly gives names to the first things He created. To be anonymous, without a name, says Sarna, is the equivalent to “non-being.” When a name is cut off it means that its bearer has ended existence, or been annihilated. That is why, Sarna points out, the Torah encourages the ritual of יִבּוּם Yee’boom, “levirate marriage” for a man who dies childless. It is performed in the hope that the first son born to the widowed wife will be named after her late husband, so that the deceased’s name will not be blotted out in Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

There is a long tradition in Judaism, especially in Kabbalah, that a name given to a child at birth has a profound impact on that child’s destiny. The child’s destiny is also impacted by the moral and spiritual character of the previous name-bearer, the person after whom the child is named.

The Torah, says Sarna, invests name giving with great importance and that a change in name is “an event of major significance.” In the ancient Near East, a king who would inaugurate a new era or a new state policy would frequently assume a new name.

Jacob, Joseph, Hoshaya (Joshua), the two Judean kings–Eliakim (Jehoiakim) and Mattaniah (Zedekiah), the prophet Daniel and his friends all experienced a change of name, symbolizing “the transmutation of character and destiny.” Of course, both Abraham and Jacob experience a name change. However, Isaac, whose name was expressly ordained by G-d before Isaac’s birth, does not undergo a name change.

Professor Sarna also points out the curious fact that the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the names of certain great Biblical heroes, like Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon, are never given to any other personages in the Bible. He attributes this to the “notion that the origins and fate of the People of Israel are central to the Divine plan of history.”

In Genesis 12:2, upon leaving Haran and setting out for Canaan, G-d tells Abraham, וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ, וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה, And I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great and you shall be a blessing. From this context it is possible to understand what the concept of “a great name” actually means. Clearly, it is much more than a name change. Not only will Abram have an heir and be the progenitor of a nation, he will actually become “the father of a multitude of nations.” An entirely new and rich destiny now awaits Abraham and his descendants.

The new name “Abraham” takes on great importance. The Talmud (Berachot 13a) comments, “Whoever refers to Abraham as Abram (after G-d changed his name), transgresses a positive command, since it says your name will be Abraham.” Such a person also transgresses a negative commandment, since it says: “You shall no longer be named Abram.”

The May’am Lo’ez warns that one should always be careful when enunciating the name “Abraham” whenever it appears in prayer, so that it is not slurred and sound like “Abram.”

So we see, a change in name in Jewish tradition means much more than a change in the letters or spelling of the name. It may very well indicate a major change in the destiny of the person who undergoes the name change, and a dramatic transformation in the history of humankind.

May you be blessed.