“The earned name is worth much more than the given name.”
–Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 7:4
I didn’t change my name when I got married. I’d always thought sharing a name sounded romantic, but when the time came, I realized I would resent giving mine up. And besides, I was too busy (or lazy) to even think about getting a new passport, driver’s license, and credit cards, so I managed to live three and a half decades with the same name my parents gave me back when I was born. Until I had my baby.
Now I have a new name: Mama.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, Jacob wrestles with the angel. After a long night of struggle and a hip injury, the angel finally asks Jacob to let him go. And Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And the angel blesses him, not with riches or descendants, but with a new name: Israel, “One who struggles with God.” It’s a complicated name, but fitting after Jacob’s all-night wrestling match.
For over 2,000 years Jews have believed that changing your name changes your destiny. The most common example of this is when someone is very ill and receives a new name. On a superstitious level, changing your name is supposed to shield you from the angel of death who might be out to get you. Deeper, it reflects the idea that names are linked to our souls and destinies. Names matter.
In Jewish belief, words are not just random combination of sounds, but are connected with the essence of things themselves. The Hebrew for “word” and “thing” are the same: dvar. This is why, in Genesis, God creates simply by speaking the names of things: “Let there be light,” and just like that, there was light.
So: I have a new name. And not just me: my punk-rock bassist husband is now Papa, and since I’m the first of my sisters to have a kid, she’s turned a whole group of people into Aunts and Uncles, Grandmas and Grandpas.
There is plenty of struggle in this renaming process, and I write a lot here about the challenges of being a new mother. I don’t believe in smoothing over the hard parts, and I love that Jacob had to wrestle for that name; he had to earn it. His name itself contains the ongoing difficulty of relationship with the divine.
But there is also a profound, radical, and beautiful transformation contained in the simple fact of this relationship–in Jacob’s case, the relationship with God, and in my case, the relationship with my daughter. Like an angel, she came down into my life, gave me a new name, and changed my destiny. She named me Mama.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.