This week we begin the book of Bemidbar with a detailed list of names. Names of those who were leading the Jewish people: the tribe elders and the Leviim. Many pesukim (verses) are dedicated throughout the Tanach to names of people we will never know, having existed thousands of years ago.
The question is why?
What’s in a name?
In Judaism names are never random. They don’t come about as a result of a decision of mom and dad, or as a result of the person one is named after. The name of each individual is chosen by Hashem long before the soul enters the body to begin a new life.
Each soul is carefully matched with the Hebrew name that best describes the individual and the life he/she can lead.
A David and a Reuven will be dramatically different personalities. A Sarah will lead a different life than a Ruth even though they’re close in age, love each other, and spend most of their waking hours together. A Yosef and a Yehudah may both become leaders but will express their leadership in distinctly different ways, with notably different outcomes; even if they tried to do otherwise.
A name is assigned to a soul by its Creator to provide the road map to the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, the challenges he or she can expect, and the potential offered them by life.
The soul of a Yaakov will never be matched with the name Shaul and the potential the Almighty has established for Miriam will never be assigned to the name Tzipora.
How’s does this relate to us?
As men and women who are searching for happiness and success, where to commit our time, and the secrets to maximize our strengths and overcome our weaknesses, the first place to look is:
Our Hebrew names!
Anyone who is named Avraham should immerse himself into the life of Avraham Avinu to discover much of his own life script. A Rivka will find great insight in the detailed description of Rivka-our-Matriarch’s strengths and challenges. To the extent the modern day Rivka can learn about herself through the biblical depiction of her matriarch, she will live her life differently, understanding for example, that there will be moments when she will risk all she achieved in her life for all she believes in her life.
If your name is not found in the 24 books of the Tanach, in the Mishna, Talmud, or the great annals of Jewish history, or if it’s not a name per se but rather a word like: simha or mazal, search for the biblical references to that word or find its root. Doing so will provide the same self insight and understanding.
But this gets even better!
Sometimes as parents we wonder: Why is the same love and attention offered by the same two parents shunned by one child while it was perfect for his older brother?
One of the reasons is that one child internalizes the love completely differently because he is a completely different person – as made clear by his name.
Names are unparalleled tools to help us understand and guide our children. When Hashem matched the souls of each of our children with his/her name he provided us a prophetic telescope to understand who the person is standing before us.
If you’re blessed with a Mordechai and a Shelomo you can best guide them by learning all you can about our ancestors who carried those names.
The best sources to find our namesakes are the Tanach – particularly the books of Bereisheet and Shemot, and the early prophets. The Jewish Encyclopedia, and a book titled “Biblical Personalities” often provide detailed write ups about the original personalities we parallel. Rabbi Yaakov Hillel compiled a wonderful set of books on writings by the Ben Ish Hai that includes sections about some of the greatest Torah personalities. And then again Wikipedia can help!
Most people I know would prefer the name Bob to Biff. The truth is it doesn’t much matter because the name with real consequences is Binyamin!
What’s in a name? Just about everything! Take a journey of self-discovery that begins with your most favorite word – your name!