This is the sermon I am giving tonight at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida.
I was born with a name. My parents named me Jeffrey Wayne Goldwasser. That’s what it says on my birth certificate. Today, I have a different name. I am Rabbi Jeffrey Wolfson Goldwasser. The title “Rabbi” I acquired eleven years ago when I was ordained, and the middle name “Wolfson” I adopted sixteen years ago when I married my wife. I have also had other names over the course of my life.
When I was still very young, I was aware that I also had a Hebrew name, Yosef Aryeh, which was given to me on the day of my bris. I knew that I was named after my grandfather’s father. I saw his portrait hanging in my grandparent’s apartment whenever I visited them. Each time I saw it, I thought, “I’m named after that old man with the gray beard. We’re both Yosef Aryeh.”
When I was a kid, for reasons that are still unknown to me, my father called me “Bean.” Was he thinking about the time that I was the size of a kidney bean in my mother’s womb? Was it a reference to my energy level as a six-year-old boy who was “full of beans”? I don’t know. But I was Bean. That’s what my father called me.
When my little sister was old enough to give me a nickname, she called me “Jay,” which makes sense as an abbreviation for “Jeffrey.” Eventually, when I was in high school, the two nicknames were combined and I was known at home as “Jay Bean.”
Each of those names stir a lot of memories in me. Those names have the power to take me back to specific, cherished moments.
When I was a rabbinic student, I once led High Holiday services at Duke University in North Carolina. The non-Jewish cellist, whom the school chaplain had hired to play Kol Nidre, spoke to me in the deferential tones he probably used when talking to his minister. He kept calling me “Reverend.” I got a chuckle out of that. I never thought of myself as “Reverend,” but for one weekend, it became part of my name.
Today, I am “Jeff” to some. I am “Rabbi” to others. I am “Abba” to two people. And, I am “Mr. Goldwasser” to the hotel clerk who asks for my credit card, or the TSA agent who checks my driver’s licence at the airport.
Each of us is made up of many different identities and, sometimes, those identities each carry different names. Our names tell others, and they tell ourselves, who we are.
This week’s Torah portion is called, “Sh’mot.” Literally, Sh’mot means “Names.” The portion opens the book of Exodus and it begins by telling us the names of the children of Jacob who came down to live in Egypt: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. Their descendants grew up in Egypt and stayed there. Over time, they earned a new name for themselves in the mouth of Pharaoh. Pharaoh called Jacob’s children, “Am B’nei Yisrael,” “The Israelite People.” By uttering that name, Pharaoh changed us from being a family into being a nation (Ex 1:9).
According to a teaching of the rabbis, the Israelites soon forgot the name of the God who had made a covenant with their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But God did not forget them. Why not? According to the rabbis, it was on account of three things: they did not forget their native language, they did not stop circumcising their sons, and they did not change their names.” (Midrash Shocher Tov 114). Names are sacred in Jewish tradition. Names connect us to each other—like the way that different people know us by different names. And names also connect us to God.
When we wish to remember someone who has died, we mention his or her name and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Tonight, we are remembering Debbie Friedman on the occasion of her first yahrzeit by singing her songs and by repeating her name to keep her and her memory alive within us. Names have that power.
This week was also the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish thinker of the Twentieth Century. There is a collection of poems that Heschel wrote when he was a young man living as a Polish foreigner in Berlin. The title of the collection is, The Ineffable Name of God: Man. In this title, Heschel suggests that God’s deepest identity, his unspeakable name, is to be found in humanity, in each of us.
This weekend we also sanctify the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., whose birthday is celebrated this Monday. By naming this day, “Martin Luther King Day,” our society has decided to make his memory a lasting part of our identity as a nation. By invoking his name on our calendars, on a special day off, and in our hearts, we recommit ourselves to the ideals that he stood for: freedom, equality, fellowship, peace, the beloved community and the pursuit of our highest dreams.
Heschel and King knew each other. They marched through the streets of Selma, Alabama, together. By naming these two great men together, we affirm the universalism of our values. The things held dear by a chasidic rabbi from Poland are also dear to an African-American Baptist minister and minister’s son from Atlanta, Georgia.
If our names connect us to God, it is also true in Jewish tradition that God’s name connects God to us. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses spoke to God through the Burning Bush and said, “When I go back to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this god’s name?’ what shall I say to them?” God answered Moses by saying, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I-am-that-I-am. You can tell the Israelites that 'Ehyeh' sent you” (Ex 3:13-14).
One of God’s deepest and truest names is simply Ehyeh, “I am.” God’s name tells us that God not only exists, but that God is existence. The God whose name is “I am” is a God who presence can be experienced throughout all of being, throughout all of everything that is.
By what names are you known? What do each of your names say about who you are? What do your names say about your values and the ideals that are most important to you? What are your most important relationships and what do your names say about those relationships? What are the names in your heart right now? Which names, when you hear them, warm your soul? Which names connect you to the highest within you? Which names connect you to God?
Each of us is born with a name which identifies us throughout life. But the names we acquire in life, and the names we invoke to say who we are and what we believe in, tell a great deal more about us. On this Shabbat, Shabbat Sh'mot, the Sabbath of Names, we sanctify our lives with the remembrance of names.
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The Last Miracle