Who am I?” This is the most powerful question that a person ever asks himself. For many of us, there are no easy answers to that question.
Social scientists believe that this question is typically asked by adolescents. Often, however, individuals persist in struggling to answer the “Who am I?” question long after they have passed that stage. The so-called “midlife crisis” can be understood as a time in life when one again asks himself the question, “Who am I?,” and a crisis arises when no clear answer to that question emerges.
An important component in the formulation of an answer to “Who am I?” is the answer to another question, “What’s in a name?” Each of us has a name, almost invariably given to us very early in our lives by our parents or parent figure.
I would like to suggest that our sense of personal identity is in large part determined by the names that we have been given. Our names were chosen for us because they have a certain meaning to those who named us. On some level, we know that our name was not randomly chosen, and to a greater extent than we realize, our self-concepts are shaped by our names.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, no less than 11 newborns are given names. In every case, these names are given by women, Leah and Rachel. Each name is carefully crafted by these women and is designed, not only to reflect the emotions of the moment, but to shape and give direction to the destinies of each of these children.
Let us consider an example: Leah gives her third son the name Levi, which means “connected,” or “attached.” This reflects her confidence that with the birth of a third son, her husband, Jacob, will become more attached to her. But it is also a message to the baby Levi that he will grow up to be “attached” to others. In his lifetime, he is typically number two of the duo “Simon and Levi,” secondary to his brother. And his progeny become “attached” to the Almighty and to all things sacred as the tribe of priests for the rest of Jewish history.
In more recent times, it has become rare for a Jewish parent to invent a new name for his or her child. The prevalent custom is to name a child for a deceased ancestor or for some other revered personage. The child who carries the name of a grandparent surely internalizes the message that in some way his life should reflect some of the values of that grandparent.
I know for whom I was named. He was my great-grandfather, Tzvi Hersh Kriegel. As a child, I learned much about him from his widow, my great-grandmother. I learned of his commitment not only to Jewish observance, but to all aspects of the Galitzianer culture.
I both consciously and unconsciously model myself after him. When I ask myself, “Who am I?,” a significant part of my answer relates back to him and to his name bequeathed to me.
I have found myself preaching over the years to those parents who would listen that they should choose the names they give their children carefully, and that rather than choose a name because they like the way it sounds or because of its popularity, they should select a name of a real person, someone who stood for something, someone your child could eventually emulate.
“What is in a name?” A message to help answer the persistent and challenging question, “Who am I?”
There is a passage in the works of our Sages which tells of the three names each of us has. There is the name which we were given at the time of our birth. But there is also the name that we earn by our own deeds, the part of the answer to the “Who am I?” question that we ourselves provide.
And finally, there is a name that others give us, the reputation that we deserve. It is that name to which King Solomon in his Kohelet refers when he remarks, “A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.” And it is that very name which the Mishnah in Avot has in mind when it concludes that of all the crowns of glory that humans can achieve, there is one that stands supreme: the keter shem tov, the crown of a good name.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.