A name is everything

A name is everything

Telling people who we are can be nothing more than providing them with our “label.” At times, however, it tells them more: not just what we are named but what we really are; and what our very existence says about the world.

Take Joseph’s self-revelation to his brothers: “Ani Yosef,” “I am Joseph.” The brothers had been perplexed by Joseph’s inexplicable treatment of them. But the minute they heard, “I am Joseph,” says the Chafetz Chayim, everything made sense. “I am Joseph” was no simple presentation of a calling-card; it was the solution to a mystery.

Similarly, the Chafetz Chayim continues, “When God said, ‘Ani Adonai,’ ‘I am Adonai’” (Leviticus 19:11), the universe itself made sense. “I am Adonai” was a solution to a cosmic mystery.

“I am Joseph” implied, “I am the reason you were treated this way. “I am Adonai” implied, “I am the reason the universe is as it is.”

A fancy word for such compelling statements is “apodictic,” meaning “self-evidently true; requiring no demonstration.”

The opposite of “apodictic” is “assertoric,” a simple “assertion” that people might conceivably question; and, sometimes, both Joseph and God introduce themselves that way as well. In Exodus 45:4, for example, Joseph says, “I am Joseph whom you sold into Egyptian bondage”; in Exodus 20, God says, “I am Adonai who rescued you from Egyptian bondage.” Rightly or wrongly, these additional qualifications are open to argument. “We didn’t really sell you,” the brothers might have claimed. “You remember it wrongly; there were mitigating factors.” Similarly, modern-day skeptics might explain the Exodus by perfectly natural circumstances.

Apodictic announcements are not like that: they are inherently undeniable. “I am Joseph” and “I am Adonai” are self-sufficient explanations in and of themselves. The very essence of Joseph, or of God, is enough to explain what is at stake. Such apodictic self-disclosures are electrifying. We never see the world the same way again.

We know what “I am Joseph” explained: it was the way the brothers had been treated on their various trips to Egypt. But what does “I am Adonai” explain with equal clarity? It cannot be the physical laws of the universe; we leave that to science. Science tells us why the sky is blue or why water boils.

Science cannot say, however, why we should love our neighbor and pay workers their wages promptly. These are ethical demands that are carried, especially, in the part of Leviticus that we call the Holiness Code; and the apodictic “I am Adonai” appears, repeatedly, precisely in that code. Moral realities have a claim upon us because “I am Adonai”: because the world is not godless; because godliness entails holiness; and because holiness is inseparable from morality.

At times, we too are supposed to announce ourselves in a way that testifies to who we are: the species gifted with consciousness like God’s, and entrusted, therefore, with guaranteeing morality. Our name alone can be an electrifying statement that precludes all doubt as to the necessity for goodness, decency, and moral depth. Is our name sufficient reason to believe in a world that is holy because we, at least, are moral? Or does our name make people cringe because it announces implicitly that we are not?

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. “A name is everything,” Jews answer. Presumably, our parents named us with great expectations of what we might become, not by virtue of professional or economic accomplishment but on account of our moral fiber — the measure of what we call character. When we announce ourselves as who our parents hoped we would be, is it the same as who the neighbors say we are and who the people we impact talk about when we are no longer in their presence?

Completing the sentence “I am…” is no simple thing. It is a transcendent act that should dispel all doubt about the goodness of the universe. Saying “I am” is a godly thing, not to be taken for granted.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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