What's In a Name?

A good name is more desirable than great riches;
a good reputation more than silver and gold.
— Proverbs 22:1

Proverbs tells us that a good name is of great value. Ecclesiastes contends that, “A good name is better than precious ointment...” (7:1) Ointment is the thin layer we put on our skin that offers protection and fragrance. It’s what others sense when they approach us. Ethics of the Fathers challenges us to acquire a good name and calls a good name a crown (1:7) and that a good name is something we uniquely own: “One who acquires a good name, acquired it for himself” (2:7).
 
But what if you don’t like your name or you don’t like the name you gave one of your children? A poll recently conducted in Great Britain concluded that close to 20% of parents regret the names they gave their children. All the major newspapers reported the findings. One out of five parents is a whopping number of disappointments. And if the parents don’t like the names, what chance is there that the kids like the names they were given? Slim, indeed. Of the 245 women who regretted the names they gave their children, a full 12% always knew it was a bad choice even before the baby was born, and 32% made the discovery within the first six weeks. Ouch.
 
Oh the agony and time expended for nine months selecting the perfect name only to be upset about it for a lifetime. The chief cause (25%) is that the name picked was too popular at the time and may not have captured the child's uniqueness. Eleven percent felt that the name created too many spelling or pronunciation problems. Two percent of those interviewed by the parenting website Mumsnet, that conducted the survey, actually changed the name because it troubled them so much. Example? Let’s say, as one parent reported, you named your child right before a terrorist group adopted the same name or picked Elsa right before the film “Frozen” came out.
 
The founder of the website chalked this up to just one of the many mistakes young parents make that they will later regret because the role and its many responsibilities is new and often difficult.
 
What’s in a name? A great deal. Adam’s first task in Genesis was to name animals. In our mystical tradition, when Adam named them, he understood their essence. When we name babies, however, we often do so without knowing anything about who they will become. We often name children after people we hope they will emulate, qualities we value or figures from our past who we wish to honor or who have had a great deal of influence over us.
 
But even in the Bible, a name can be a mistake. Ask Abigail. When the young strapping warrior David needed provisions and came to her estate, her husband Nabal refused him. After the text offers their names, it provides a description of the wife and the husband. “She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings” (I Samuel 25:3). Nabal saw no reason to help a stranger. “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Why should I take my bread and water and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers and give it to men coming from who knows where?” (25: 11). Betraying the Abrahamic tradition of hospitality where we are kind to strangers precisely because we do not know them, Nabal felt that because they were strangers, he had no responsibility to them at all.
 
Nabal in Hebrew means a disgusting person, a fool, someone of no class or poor taste. Abigail, realizing David’s budding majesty and embarrassed by Nabal’s lack of generosity, ran out to greet David and bowed low to the ground in humility. Unbeknownst to her husband, she brought David and his troops 200 loaves of bread, five sheep, wine, grain, raisins, figs - all in abundance.  Abigail told David to excuse her husband’s behavior and to seek no revenge for his stinginess. “Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just as his name. His name means fool and folly goes with him...” (25:26). Conveniently for her, Nabal, after hearing who David really was, suffered heart failure and died ten days later. When David caught wind of the news, he sent for Abigail, and she became his wife.
 
Nabal’s name was actually his downfall instead of his crown. His wife hated his name and perhaps also hated the man behind it. “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increase fear of the thing itself,” was advice Harry Potter once got. Nabal lived up to the name he was given but only in the worst and most ironic way.
 
Do you like your name?  
Is there something you can do now to earn an even better name?
 
Shabbat Shalom