Re'eh: Fame! Remember My Name (for a blessing)!

Why do we bury damaged or illegible Torah scrolls and prayerbooks?  And why is there a Jewish tradition of not writing out the word “G-d?”  Both practices derive from this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh.  In it, Moses admonishes the Israelites:

Deuteronomy 12:2. You shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree. And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place. 4. You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.

Thus, whereas the Israelites were commanded to obliterate the names of the dispossessed people's gods, they were forbidden to do so with “the name of the Lord, your G-d.”   Since we may not damage or obliterate the Divine name, it’s best not to write it unnecessarily lest it be inadvertently destroyed.  Hence, the use of a substitute word or abbreviation.  And once we do write it, such as in a Torah or prayerbook, we must take care that it not be destroyed. 

What difference does it make if we erase a word from a piece of paper, rip it up, or throw it away?  It depends upon how we look at words – and names.  With respect to words, traditional Judaism regards letters and words not just as symbols for concepts, but, perhaps like atoms, as actual buildings blocks of existence and influence. (As, for example, the ancient “Baruch She’amar” prayer with which we begin the Pesukei D’zimrah section of the prayer service: “Blessed is He who spoke and the world came into being.”)   

But the significance of words, generally, is, G-d willing, a subject for a future D’var Torah.  Here, I wish to focus upon the significance of a special category of words: names

In today’s society, we generally attach little intrinsic importance to a person’s name.  It may or may not reflect ethnicity; evoke memory of a deceased relative; make pleasant allusion to a flower, season, or personality trait; and/or simply be pleasing to the parents’ ear. 

But we don’t think, “a name is vitally important because it will be the means by which we/our children will forever be remembered, if at all.”   We don’t think this, but we should.  Our ancestors, and perhaps those in other cultures, understood the essential significance of names far better than we.  When the named person is not physically present, and except among those whom the named person may have directly affected, recognition of their name is their existence.  

Our Torah portion, which promises blessings and curses depending upon conduct, uses the phrase “in the place where He will have established His name.”  But it is we who “establish His name,” i.e., His reputation, by taking actions and behaving “in His name.”  Similarly, we “establish" our name through our actions, and thus determine whether its mention will prompt a blessing or a curse by its hearers.  Will future generations strive to keep our name alive, simply forget it, or, G-d forbid, seek to obliterate it?  Now, as we begin the month of Elul and preparation for the Days of Awe, is the time to think about, and if need be, begin attempting to restore our good names. 

This Shabbat and henceforth, may we strive to become and remain ba’alei shem tov: Masters/Owners of a Good Name.  May our “fame,” the mention of our name, both during and after our lifetime, be only cause for blessing. 

Shabbat shalom. 

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  • Re'eh: Fame! Remember My Name (for a blessing)!

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3