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The Power of a Name

Friday, 24 December, 2021 - 10:41 am

One of my favorite Jewish jokes is the one about the three Cohen brothers who approached Henry Ford with their game changing patent that installed air conditioning into automobiles. Ford was excited and offered to pay them an exorbitant sum for the rights to use their invention in Ford automobiles. They had one condition. They wanted each unit to be clearly labeled with their name, Cohen Air Conditioning. Notorious antisemite that he was, Ford refused to have the name Cohen visible in his cars. They settled for a higher price and their first names. To this day, every ford vehicle has the first names of the three Cohen brothers on each air conditioning control panel, Hi, Norm and Max.

Now imaging if they had used their Jewish names, Chaim, Nachman, and Moshe? That would be something else entirely. The second book of the Torah is known in English as Exodus. However, while this is a valid translation of the book’s alternative name, given by our sages in the Midrash, Sefer Yetziat Mitzraim, the primary name of the second book in the Holy Tongue is, Shemot, which translates as “Names.” Why would a book that relates the story of the slavery, the exodus, revelation at Sinai, and the building of the Tabernacle, be called “Names?”

Our Sages comment that the names of the twelve tribes are listed right at the beginning of the book to teach us that our people never gave up their Jewish names throughout the duration of Egyptian persecution. To paraphrase their words, “the Reuven and Shimon that came to Egypt, are the same Reuven and Shimon that left Egypt.” In fact, the maintaining of their Jewish names is one of three merits that earned them the Redemption from Egypt.

A Jewish name is something that is associated with an identity. We should be proud of our Jewish identity and proud of our Jewish names. Now I am the first to recognize that having a “different sounding” name could make for some uncomfortable moments. Whenever I am at the DMV, as soon as I see the clerk looking down at the paper, scrunching up her eyes and puckering her lips, trying to figure how to pronounce Menachem (my first name), I am already half-way up to the counter trying to put her out of her misery. I cannot even count how many times a customer service rep has called me Wendel or (get a load of this one) Mental. Yet, I am very proud of my Jewish identity and my Jewish name. I would not even consider replacing it or supplanting it with a more “American” sounding name, just to save myself those uncomfortable moments.  

Jewish names are an important part of our Jewish identity, and we should “wear” them proudly.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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