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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
January 30, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Believe it or not, the vocabulary covered in the previous sixty (!) presentations give you all the tools you need to understand all of the first two paragraphs of the Amidah, and a few more words will round out this third blessing as well.

Stripping the word of prefix (v'/and) and suffix (kha/your) leaves the word itself, "sheim." We all know "sheim," both its translation from Hebrew ("name") and, all puns intended, its English sound-alike.

But what is a name?

By far, the most usual conversation I have with expectant parents is about what to name the baby. Especially in Ashkenazic tradition, in which the custom is to name for the dead, parents agonize over how to capture the essence of the person they remember. Do they choose the same name, or one that sounds like it, or starts with the same letter, or has the same meaning? What if someone else in the family has the same name? I try to offer as much help as I can, but always remind them of certain truth: whatever name you choose, the child will make it his or her own in pretty short order.

My own kids' names honor some beloved family members, but it took about ten minutes after birth for the memory of those namesakes to recede deep into the background.

In the Bible, the power to name was the power to capture the essence of the person, animal or object. A later Aramaic phrase became a show-business staple: "abracadabra" means "I create as I say." The Biblical prophets foresaw a one-ness to God's name, something we repeat at the conclusion of each service, "yih'yeh adonai echad ushmo echad," "God will be one and God's name will be one."

Yet, as if we recognize that we cannot capture God's essence, we have a roster of names we use for God as we encounter the divine presence in different manifestations and circumstances. Even we who proclaim ourselves God's faithful do not call God by one name! It may explain why the popular euphemism for God has become "hasheim," the Name. Whatever we human beings decide to call God, God will be what God will be, as Moses learned at the burning bush.

And we, who are molded in God's image, have been given that capacity as well.

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