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What Is Your Name

04/06/2015 08:18:00 AM


What Is Your Name
Yizkor 1995
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

When God created the animals, He brought them, one by one, before Man so that he could name them. Man examined the essence of each creature, and assigned its name. So teaches Genesis.

But the Midrash went farther: And when all the animals had been named, God then asked Man: What is your name? And he said, "Adam".
Then God asked, "And what is My name?" And he answered, "Adonai, the Eternal."

We spend a lifetime learning the names of everything around us. We master the requisite skills to survive in our culture -- social codes, commercial skills, street smarts. We master the science of our generation. We acquire credentials -- degrees and diplomas. We amass great quantities of knowledge of the world-out-there. And then discover that we never learned the answer to the one question that really matters -- What is your name? Who are you? What is your essence? What are you made of?

It is a question each one of us must face. But it is in some sense unanswerable. Because at no point are we ever finished. The meaning of any decision we make, of any event of life, for that matter, the meaning of a life at any one moment changes as life goes on. Have you ever experienced a failure, or mourned a tragedy, that over time yield great rewards? Have you ever made a mistake that turned out to be the luckiest thing you could have done? When asked what brought him to his greatest discoveries, Einstein pointed to the fact that he was thrown out of school at an early age. He failed all his they threw him out. And because of that, he explained, "I continued to ask the child's questions about the universe."

The meaning of a life today is determined, to a great extent, by what happens tomorrow. "You cannot measure a living tree," wrote Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, "only a fallen tree. A living tree is in a state of growth and we cannot assess its stature. What it is at the moment is transitory, and it gives way to the tree's continuous unfolding. And so it is with people. We can say of a man that his life has been distinguished or otherwise, only when his days are ended. Then is the time to render an accounting. But the living are subject to change and they are, therefore, beyond final judgment."

God asks, What is your name? Perhaps only at death can we give the answer.

It was the most fearful and extraordinary moment, the first time I went to see a family as a newly-ordained Rabbi, to bring comfort on the eve of the funeral. I didn't know them nor did they know me. I didn't know the deceased; had never met him. I asked the children and grandchildren to share their memories. And as they spoke I realized how much a life tells a story. There are twists and ironies, tragedies and triumphs. On the whole, seen from the perspective of death, there is a coherent plot, a set of characters, a climactic decision, a closing. Perhaps at death we can finally answer God's question, What is your name?

And then again, not even at death. It is, after all, the children and grandchildren who hold the stories in their memories. So much of life is lived for others. So much is given to children. So much sacrificed for community. So much dedicated to mend and heal a broken world. So much of ourselves is invested in others, is it not true that much of the meaning and value of our lives is held in the hands of others? So much is determined by their actions after we are gone.

I look into the eyes of the Bar Mitzvah boy. He is young and nervous. His friends from school giggle in the background. But in the second row of the synagogue sit a grandfather and a grandmother who survived Auschwitz and Belsen, and I tell him something he doesn't yet understand. He may never understand. Perhaps it's unfair to tell him this: "Do you realize that your grandfather's life, that your grandmother's fate, are in your hands? Understand that your decision to appear here in the synagogue as a Bar Mitzvah, to wear a tallis, to chant a Haftorah, your willingness to declare your solidarity with our people, gives some meaning, some purpose, some worth to their suffering. If you live up to the ideals of the Torah you read from today, what they went through, what they withstood, the risks they took, the sacrifices they made...they make sense. But if you cast away these sacred words, then their suffering was for nothing."

Kohelet, the author of the Bible's book of Ecclesiastics, found bitter irony in this: "I loathe all that I had toiled for under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will succeed me -- and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? And he will control all I toiled for under the sun...that too is futile!"

No, not futile. That is the purpose of faith. Even in death we cannot answer God's question. When God asks, "What is your name?" we realize that the answer is beyond us -- it lies in the hands of others.

This is part of the power of these Yizkor prayers. God asks His question, and we realize that the fate of our loved ones, the lives of our ancestors, lies here in our hands. Their names, their struggles, the value of their sacrifices are all determined by our lives. Tehi Nishmatam Tzerurim b'tzerur ha-haiim...we pray, may their lives be bound up in the bonds of life eternal. That's not a prayer, it's a promise. It's a pledge -- to live a life filled with those ideals, those values, those ethics that make worthwhile, and meaningful and valuable all that they sacrificed and all that they gave.

And then, when we have answered that question, God asks yet another question. He asks, What is My name?

God needs human beings. God needs human beings to decide what He will be called in this world. Like every one of us, God waits for His children to determine the meaning of His existence through their lives. Like every one of us, God must trust his children to define His essence in the world through values, the choices, the lives they lead.

The Kotzker Rebbe was asked, Where in the universe does God dwell? Ayeh mikom Kevodo? And he answered, wherever human beings let Him in. Now that you know who you are, says God, now you can tell me who I am.

We come to Yizkor to recite the names of our loved ones; to remember their names and all they were. But we also come to look inward -- to look deeply at the choices we've made, the value we live by, the lives we've see, indeed, if the names our loved ones have been affirmed, and to see, if in our lives and in the lives of our children, God's name is affirmed.

Yehi shemay rabah mevorach l'almei almiya.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780