Two thousand years ago the Jewish sages taught that we have at least three names during our lifetime — the name our parents give us, the name our friends call us, and the name we earn for ourselves in the world.
The Name Our Parents Give Us
Parents choose names for a variety of reasons. They may name us after a deceased relative. They choose a name they wish they had been called. They may simply choose a name they like. One couple in my synagogue encountered a name in an ancient Greek myth that they couldn’t get out of their head, so they used it for their first son.
The unmistakable truth is that the name we are given reflects our parents’ wishes. We do not choose it. We do not control it. We may love it. We may hate it. Yet, we have no choice but to be identified with it.
The Name Our Friends Call Us
We have a bit more control over the name our friends call us. It often derives from our personality or skills or interests. Yet, it, too, often falls outside of our control.
My grandfather was named Ervin, but his friends called him Tam. He was tall, and his friends thought he looked like a famous basketball player of the time named Tam. Thus, he earned a nickname for life.
A Hebrew name of “Beautiful Face”
While we may not have much control over the name our friends call us, we can try to live up to its positive aspirations. Rabbi David Whiman tells the story of an adult woman studying to become a Bat Mitzvah. She told him that her Hebrew name was “Shaynah Punim.” (Many Jews have a Hebrew name in addition to their English or other vernacular name, typically given by parents at birth.)
Rabbi Whiman laughed when she told him this Hebrew name. “That’s not your Hebrew name,” he said. “Yes it is,” she replied. “That’s what everyone called me when I was a kid.”
Rabbi Whiman said, “They may have called you that, but “shaynah punim” means ‘beautiful face.’ It’s an expression, something like ‘cutie pie.’ It’s not a name.”
“No,” she insisted, “that’s my Hebrew name.” He complied with her request, and remarked later about how happy he was to do so. He said to her during the Bat Mitzvah service, “My hope, my prayer is that you will live your life in such a way that when others see you they will see in you the light of loving, ethical and compassionate concern that we Jews call the face of the Divine, and see in your actions the image of God implanted within us. So that when you are called by the Divine to render account for the way you used the gift of life entrusted to you, the Good Lord himself will reach out and touching your face, call you ‘shaynah punim’ as well.”
The name others call us can be a spur to bring out the best within us.
The Name We Earn for Ourselves
But now we come to the name that matters most. It is the one we influence and control. It is the name we make for ourselves. It is the one we create through our deeds. It is the one we discover through our successes and our failures, our frustrations and our dreams, our aspirations and our disappointments.
Every moment of life is an opportunity to create the name we make for ourselves. It is the hardest to sustain, and the most important to discover.
This truth helps understand the importance of the name the new Pope has chosen for himself. He was given the name Jorge Bergolio at birth. His friends have called him dignified, caring for the poor, austere and humble in his way of life. Now we will witness the name he earns for himself. Will it reflect our world’s deepest spiritual needs and hopes?
Perhaps Francis has already taken the first steps forward. In a recent speech he said, when he discovered he had been elected pope, Cardinal Bergolio received a hug from his friend Cardinal Hummes of Brazil. “He hugged me. He kissed me. He said don’t forget about the poor,” Francis recalled. “And that’s how in my heart came the name Francis of Assisi who devoted his life to the poor, missionary outreach and caring for God’s creation.”
His first appearance seemed to echo other qualities of Francis of Assisi, as Pope Francis displayed humility in asking the gathered crowd to pray for him and seemed relaxed and simple in his words and gestures. This style reflects his history of simplicity and caring for the poor, choosing to ride the bus to work and live in a small apartment as Cardinal in Buenos Aires.
We do not have to be Catholic to hope and pray that Pope Francis continues on this path of earning the name he has chosen for himself.
President Obama lands today in Israel. It is his first visit as President.
His relationship with Israelis has had its ups and downs. He intrigued and inspired many Israelis during the 2008 campaign. One merchant interviewed recently in the New York Times recalled selling thousands of kaepas (small skullcaps worn by religiously observant Jews) inscribed in Hebrew with the Obama campaign slogan, “change you can believe in.”
How The Relationship Waned
Criticism grew quickly, however, following the President’s March 2009 trip to the Middle East. While he visited Israel’s neighbor Egypt, and delivered an important speech there, the President did not visit Israel.
The message and focus of his speech also alienated many Israelis. It seemed to link the purpose of the founding of the state of Israel with Jewish sufferering during the Holocaust.
It did not note the connection between the Jewish state and the land of Israel dating back to the Bible, and seemed to bypass the two thousand years of Jewish longing for return to Israel.
The Love Affair With Bill Clinton
Israelis’ coolness toward Obama differs significantly from their love of former President Bill Clinton. Moshe Halbertal, a scholar and astute observor of Israeli society, said recently if he were eligible to run, Clinton could be elected Prime Minister of Israel.
Even through President Obama’s policies toward Israel do not differ materially from those of President Clinton, their perception does. In relating to Israelis, President Clinton displayed his knowledge of the potent observation by Poet Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
During this visit, President Obama has the opportunity to change the way Israelis feel. Here’s what we can do:
1. Proclaim proudly the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel: Few countries need to justify their right to exist as often and as vociferously as Israel. President Obama can show he gets their plight and identifies with them by saying Israel has been part of the Jewish heart and soul since the time of the Bible. This statement is neither unimportant nor controversial.
2. Acknowledge that Israelis have tried and struggled for peace with their neighbors: After the War of Independence in 1948, Israel sought peace with its neighbors. After the Six-Day War in 1967, it offered a return of conquered territories for a concrete peace treaty with Arab Neighbors. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel sought sought another peace agreement. All were rejected.
Israel is also the only country to have ever created a plan for Palestinians to live in and govern their own state. When Jordan and Egyptian occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank, they did not attempt to create a Palestinian state. Israel has tried.
And the President can acknowledge that.
This acknowledgement would also have pragmatic effects. Israelis are committed to peace, and if the President acknowledgements they have struggled for it before, he can help inspire them to struggle for it again.
3. Condemn terrorism unequivocally: Israel has been the miner’s canary for the spread of terrorism. It was Israeli school and airplanes that became the first targets of radical terrorists in the 1970s. Dozens of suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians over the last two decades.
The threat of terrorism is what makes Israelis fearful of a Palestinian state. As several recent polls indicated, 70 percent of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet, when asked whether two states living side by side would bring peace, 80 percent of Israelis say no.
If Israelis feel the President understands their concern about terrorism, they will feel both more secure in taking risks for peace and confident in America’s ability to help forge it. May it be so.
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In a recent talk Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, pointed out a unique feature of the Hebrew language. It contains two words for the one English word “why.” The two Hebrew words are maduah and lamah.
Why do we need two words? Because each conveys a different attitude.
Words Shape Our Attitude
Maduah is passive. It is used by the person who asks, “Why did this happen to me? Why did God do this? Why is life treating me this way?”
It suggests we are at the whim of people and forces outside of our control. It echoes the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which says, our work and our dreams are “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
Lama conveys a different attitude. Someone who uses the word lama is not asking, “Why did this happen to me?” She is asking, “To what purpose is this event? What can I learn from it? Now that this has happened, how best can I respond?”
One kind of question leads to frustration and despair. The other leads to growth and change. One looks for someone or something to blame. The other embraces responsibility. One looks backward. The other pushes forward.
And asking the right question can make all the difference.
Saving Her Life By Saving Others
Rabbi Sidney Greenberg illustrates this truth in a story of a hospital visit he once made. He was going to see a member of his synagogue who was ill.
On his way to her room, he ran into a hospital volunteer. He couldn’t believe this volunteer was there.
She had just recovered from an awful cancer, and had gone through a divorce in the process. She had so much to be upset about, and yet here she was volunteering at the hospital.
He asked her, “With all your troubles, where do you get the strength to help others?”
“Rabbi,” she said, “this work saves me. If I didn’t come here twice a week, I don’t think I’d be able to carry on at all.”
Giving gives us life. It nourishes us. It holds us up when we feel like falling.
The Dead Sea and the Sea of Life
We find proof for this lesson in the very geography of the land of Israel. Israel has two main bodies of water: the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. They are both fed by the Jordan River.
Yet, they differ significantly.
The Sea of Galilee is full of life. It has greenery, fish, living creature. The Dead Sea, as its name implies, has no life. What’s the difference?
The Dead Sea receives water, but does not give it. The Sea of Galilee both receives and gives.
The Dead Sea is a reservoir. It keeps its water for itself. The Sea of Galilee is a spring. It gives so that it lives.
So can we.
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Chutzpah is a Yiddish word with no exact English translation. The closest English equivalent would be “audacity” or “boldness.”
But chutzpah also contains an element of passion, social concern and self-confidence. Someone with chutzpah knows what he believes, and knows that he is right.
Chutzpah Makes a Pope Impossible
Perhaps the embrace of chutzpah has doomed any effort to appoint a Pope-type figure for the Jewish people. There have been periodic attempts throughout history to do so, and even today certain communities have “chief rabbis.”
Yet, the power of any one individual in Judaism is determined by influence, not law or regulation. One can only earn influence, and not simply obtain it by virtue of position.
The nature of Judaism itself also makes the appointment of any “infallible” leader impossible. Here’s why:
1. A group carries more weight than an individual: In Jewish tradition, a majority of scholars determines the law. No one individual–even God–can determine what one must do and believe.
The classic example of this truth comes in a talmudic story in which a group of rabbis determines that a certain ritual item is kosher, even when God says it is not. The rabbis answer God by saying, “You’re in Heaven. We’re on earth. We need to figure this out!”
2. What we do matters more than what we believe: In Judaism doctrine is seconary to behavior, and the proper behavior has already been determined in Biblical and talmudic law. The role of contemporary religious leaders is to interpret those laws, and not to mandate new ones.
3. Disagreement is a religious value: Judaism has always seen debate and discussion as a means to discovering truth. The notion of an infallible leaders does not fit in this worldview.
4. Judaism has no sacraments: Catholicism is built around the belief that priests have certain functions no one else can fill. Only a priest can conduct a mass or perform the last rites. In Judaism, rabbis have no distinct privileges. Any educated layperson can perform a wedding, lead a worship service or teach Jewish law.
5. It wouldn’t work: About 120 years ago, a group of Jews in the New York wanted to appoint a Chief Rabbi for America. They paid a great deal of money to bring over a famous rabbi from Europe. They set him up in a big office with the title “Chief Rabbi.”
He immediately began issuing laws and opinions. People got angry. They challenged his views. They stopped going to his synagogue. They said the only reason he was chief rabbi was that somebody painted those words on his office door.
Within six years, he was out of the job. Since then no one has tried to fill it.
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