When we meet a stranger, the first thing we acquire from them is their name.
This is the beginning of a relationship with another person. We begin by introducing ourselves; offering our name to a stranger in a gesture that welcomes a conversation, one that later builds a connection.
A person’s name is their immediate identifier. Given as a gift to us at birth, our name is a seed that eventually sprouts into our personality, our being and our essence.
I was born as Valeria Michailovich. To most around me, I am known as Valerie. Some even call me Val. Others call me Leah. Those who are closest to me know me as Lera.
These are my names. My identifiers.
These names, which I acquired throughout my life, bring out different aspects of my personality. Valeria is my birth name, familiar only to those I cherish most. Valerie is a name I created in North America after my classmates told me that Valeria was too hard for them to pronounce. Leah is my Hebrew name, one that embodies my Jewish identity.
By adapting my name to my individual relationships, I am able to relate my identity in a way that allows me to meaningfully connect to those around me.
In a glossy, social media and tech-obsessed world, people try to build connections with more than just their name. They post obsessively on social media about every aspect of their daily life. With updated statuses and 140 characters, people connect with one another over quick snaps, political stances, and daily affirmations. Every single one is an expression of someone’s personal identity.
These days, a quick search on the internet will provide you with a plethora of information about those around you. LinkedIn gives you a quick summary of a person’s academic and professional career. Facebook gives you the latest update on their personal life. And Instagram shows you the photos that depict a person’s travel history and taste in food - a curated reality.
This need to overshare information is a perplexing way of building human relationships.
However, it is not at all how the Jewish Nation has built their connection to G-d, the most fundamental relationship of all. We have been taught to put emphasis on more than just a name; we were taught to look beyond a person’s mere image.
In fact, the irony is that we, as Jewish people, since the times of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have built a sincere, meaningful, rich and trusting relationship with G-d without needing to fully know or understand G-d’s one true name.
When G-d appeared before Moses in a form of a burning Bush, Moses exclaimed, “Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13).
In response, G-d said, “I will be what I will be.” (Exodus 3:14). Ehyeh asher ehyeh.
G-d further proclaimed, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, 'The Lord God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is My name forever, and this is how I should be mentioned in every generation.” (Exodus 3:15).
This is his descriptor. His being.
Moses was not asking G-d his name. He was asking, who is G-d? What can G-d do? And what is G-d like?
Moses’s questions reached beyond the scope of simply trying to understand a name. They dug deeper, into G-d’s very essence.
Judaism teaches that G-d is boundless. He is not physical. He has no beginning. And he has no end. G-d’s being is so mystical that we, as humans, cannot possibly fully comprehend His existence.
To know G-d’s name is to know G-d’s actions.
It is true that G-d has many names. It is not enough that G-d is a Creator. He is also a Redeemer. A Protector. And a Forgiver.
He is variably compassionate, merciful and loving.
Euphemisms like Elokim, our G-d of justice; Adnai, our G-d of mercy; Malkeinu, our G-d the king; and Aveinu, our G-d the father, have allowed generations to marvel at His creations, ponder His existence, and wonder about His reverence.
And as I think about the irony of a deep relationship without so much as a name, I wonder if people feel the same curiosity when their fingertips scatter across their keyboards and graze the screens of their smartphones.
When we hurry to share the most intimate details about our daily lives, our interests and our opinions with those around us, do we build true connections?
And when I introduce myself to a stranger, will they know me as Valeria, the adventurous traveler who is keen to learn about the world? Leah, the compassionate volunteer who wants to give back to her community? Or Valerie, the courageous young woman ready to undertake new and daring challenges?
What can they learn from just a name?
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