My wife Sarah and I named our children Elie and Mica after members of our families whom we loved: Esther, Eileen, Meir and Max. When Elie and Mica were born, we threw festive parties and blessed them with their new names. We shared why we loved these names and how we hoped that they would bring the qualities and values of the people for whom they were named more deeply into the world. It often seems that our beloved family members whom we have lost are resting on our kids’ shoulders, guiding their way. Naming children is beautiful, full of hope and promise and love. But naming also has what we call a “shadow side.” A name can feel limiting of one’s identity. What if our Elie didn’t feel like an Elie? Or our Mica didn’t want to be Mica? It is our responsibility to help them live genuinely and truthfully.
This is a core tension in our Torah reading this week, parashat Va’yeitzeh, which includes stories of giving birth and giving names. Torah tells us a story of the origin of the name of each of Jacob’s sons born to Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. The names express experiences and emotions like feeling unloved, hoping for love, gratitude, vindication, prevailing in a battle, and fortune. These are not easy emotions for a child to hold in his or her name. I read much of the rest of Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, though this lens. The stories of this family originate in these very emotional experiences of birth. The children are given an immediate identity and they struggle to both fulfill and separate themselves from their identities. Their struggle to live genuinely is at the heart of the painful, but finally redemptive and fulfilling, story of this family. In each of our lives, as parents and as children, we can join this struggle, looking to the past experiences and emotions of our families for guidance while charting out an authentic life of our own.
Rabbi Daniel Berman, Temple Reyim