Friday, June 4, 2021/24 Sivan, 5781
Parashat Sh’lach L’cha Numbers 13:1−15:41
“Mom, why do you have so many names?” my children asked when they were young. They called me mommy, friends and family called me Cassi, and when I was in temple, people called me Rabbi. How could it be that I had three names? Shouldn’t I have one, just like them?
They did not yet understand that many of us hold a multiplicity of names. Kohelet Rabbah 7:1 teaches, “A person is given three names. One that he is called by his parents, one that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself.” It is not unusual to acquire additional names as we progress on life’s journeys.
As Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky reflects in her poem L’chol Ish Yesh Shem, “Everyone Has a Name,” “Everyone has a name given to him by God and given by his parents. Everyone has a name given to him by his stature and the way he smiles and given to him by the fabric he wears. Everyone has a name given to him by the mountains and given to him by his walls. Everyone has a name given to him by the constellations of stars and given to him by his neighbors. Everyone has a name given to him by his sins and given to him by his longings. Everyone has a name given to him by his celebrations and given to him by his work. Everyone has a name given to him by seasons of the year and given to him by his blindness. Everyone has a name given to him by the sea and given to him by his death.”
Throughout our lives, we acquire many new names based on our successes and struggles, our blossoming relationships, and our leadership positions.
In Shelach Lecha, Moses bestows a new name on a man, who up until this point has only gone by Hoshea ben Nun (Numbers 13:16). The Rabbis speculate about his new name. Perhaps, Jacob ben Asher suggests, Moses did this to protect Hoshea, who had been the Army General during the war with Amalek. Coins had been circulated celebrating his victory. Moses gave him a new name so that the Canaanites would not recognize him.
I’m more partial to the idea put forth by Rashbam, that he earned this new name through hard work and determination. He received this name when he rose in rank after showing his loyalty to Moses and his commitment to the Israelite people.
Moses offers Hoshua his new name at a pivotal moment in his journey toward leadership. After a long journey through the wilderness, the Israelites had finally reached the outer borders of Canaan. Moses selected twelve leaders, one from each tribe, to explore the Promised Land. They would come back with a report that would help the Israelites to determine how to proceed.
Before he leaves, Moses gives him the name Yehoshua, Joshua. Ramban explains that this name isn’t provided by happenstance. “Moses changed his name to make it a prayer, “May God preserve you from the counsels of the spies.” Hoshua means “salvation,” and according to Ramban, Yehoshua was intended to mean “May you be saved.”
Just as Joshua starts on his journey, Moses bestows on him a name of blessing.
At tonight’s Shabbat services, we will bless graduates who are starting out on a new journey like Joshua. After completing high school or college, they will embark on new adventures.
Life’s journey is sometimes lush and fruitful as Canaan, and sometimes it is filled with challenges and giants we are not sure we can overcome. Each experience can change us for the better if we let it. Through them all, we can acquire names of which we are proud.
“Every time a person exemplifies a mitzvah, they earn a good name for themselves,” teaches Midrash Tanchuma, Vayakhel 2. “An earned name is worth much more than all of the others.”
As our graduates head out on a new journey, we pray that they will acquire many new names of blessing.
Rabbi Cassi Kail