Rabbi’s Corner

In a world of names, searching for meaning

Rabbi Helen T. Cohn
Rabbi Helen T. Cohn

When asked, “What is your name?” we generally respond with our first name or perhaps our full legal name. But each of us has many names, and occasionally it is worthwhile to consider what they are and what they say about us.

Our names reveal something about our origins and our identities. Early in the Book of Esther we read that Esther’s name was originally Hadassah, but she used the Persian name to hide her Jewish identity. Some of our own ancestors did the same in their desire to shed their ethnic identity and assimilate into the culture of the New World.

Others of us have changed our names for different reasons, for example when getting married. Or we have additional names, the special ones of endearment given by our families and loved ones. We also have our technological identity: email and logon and passwords. So many names and identities in this secular world of ours!

The Israeli poet Zelda (1914-1984) asks us to think of our names in a deeper way:

Each of us has a name

given by God

and given by our parents


Each of us has a name

given by our stature and our smile

and given by what we wear


Each of us has a name

given by the mountains

and given by our walls


Each of us has a name

given by the stars

and given by our neighbors


Each of us has a name

given by our sins

and given by our longing


Each of us has a name

given by our enemies

and given by our love


Each of us has a name

given by our celebrations

and given by our work

(trans. Marcia Falk)


Because this poem is familiar to many, and because of its repetitious first lines, we easily skim it and don’t give it the consideration it invites. However the poem invites us to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul, a deep look at who we are.

As Zelda says, it is worth reflecting on our true identity and character as revealed by the name given us by our outward appearance, by our actions, by our place in the universe.

At the beginning of Leviticus we read, “And God called to Moses …” If God were to call us, what name would God use? And if we were to hear that call, would we recognize our special name and consider how we must conduct ourselves in order to live up to it?