Bo: Call me "A-RONE" (Aaron)

“What was your (deceased family member's) Hebrew name?"

I always ask this question when preparing to officiate at a funeral.  I want to refer to it during the eulogy, perhaps connect it to an ancestor of the deceased and/or to a Jewish historical figure, tie it to an important character trait, and include it in the chanting of El Malei Rachamim.  

Increasingly, though, the answer I receive is “I don’t know.”  Nor should this be surprising.  The only time that most Jews, who go by their non-Hebrew names, even have occasion to recall their own Hebrew names is to sign their marriage ketubah, name their children, or be called up to the Torah.  Further, many Jews’ facility with Hebrew is limited to basic prayers (without necessarily understanding them) and a few other common words or expressions.  

From the standpoint of Jewish identify and peoplehood, both of these circumstances are highly unfortunate, even tragic.  A Jew's Hebrew (or Yiddish) name can and should be a meaningful tie to her Jewish heritage, as well as reinforcing his Jewish identity.  As for use of the language, Hebrew is, of course, not just the language of the Bible and Siddur -- the language by which G-d created the world, and in which G-d and the Jewish people spoke and still speak to each other.  It is the ancient and miraculously reborn national language of the Jewish people. 

Just as our Hebrew or Yiddish name affords us our unique Jewish identity, the Hebrew language affords us our unique collective cultural and philosophical expression as a people.  

How do we know this?  In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the Jewish people are redeemed from Egyptian slavery.  The Torah states, ”And it was on this very day that all the legions of Hashem left the land of Egypt.”  (Exodus 12:41)  

A Midrash (Sefer Vayikra) asks why the Jews were worth of redemption. Although described as “the legions of Hashem,” they did not appear committed to G-d; indeed, the angels charged that they were idol-worshipers just like the Egyptians.  

The Midrash explains that they were redeemed because of their commitment to four things: 

(1) they did not change their Hebrew names, 
(2) they continued to speak the Holy Language, Hebrew, 
(3) they did not slander each other, and 
(4) they maintained their moral rectitude.  

These commitments showed G-d that they had not abandoned either G-d or their G-d-given heritage.  (I acknowledge Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum and his book Peninim [Pearls] on the Torah, for teaching me this). 

If we do not self-identify using our Hebrew names, and do not participate in the national life of our people using our language, we are in danger of assimilating.  

But we did not grow up speaking Hebrew, do not use it in our daily lives, and it is difficult to learn.  What, then, can we realistically do?  

Each of us can easily begin to strengthen our Jewish identities – and try to serve as an example and, we can even hope, inspiration -- simply by increasingly using our Hebrew names.  In emails, in letters, and in phone messages to family, to Jewish friends and acquaintances, and to Jewish organizations.  We can ask that they use our Hebrew names when communicating with us, and we can ask theirs and, with their permission, do likewise.  (We can use English letters to transliterate and/or easily add a vitual Hebrew keyboard to our computers and cell phones).  When we encounter a David, Joseph, Rebecca, Sarah, or other person with an obvious Hebrew name, we can call them DaVEED, YoSEF, RIVkah, or SaRAH, etc. and then ask them if we may continue to do so, hoping that they will take renewed (or, perhaps for the first time) pride in their name.  
More challenging, but also potentially more rewarding, is making a commitment to learn more Hebrew -- even a little.  There are many applications, websites, books, and classes available for free or for very little money.  Assembling a small learning group with one or more members who speak a little more Hebrew than the others costs nothing and can be a source of social enjoyment as well as learning.  Ask your rabbi or adult education chair to recommend or start a Hebrew learning group. 

Far more than a good time and education is at stake, valuable as these are. The perpetuation of our people and culture depends upon each of us.  

Shabbat shalom!

HaRav Aaron ben Mordechai haLevi v’Tovah (Rabbi Art Levine)

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