By Any Other Name

For a long time, I would not say my last name when introducing myself. I wanted people to get to know me on my own terms, and all too often, when I said my full name, my interlocutor would immediately ask if I was related to my mother, my father, or one of my various siblings. And then I’d have to say, “Oh yes, that’s my mother/father/sister/brother” – which meant that the conversation would inevitably turn to how wonderful my mother/father/sister/brother is. And while there is something heartwarming about hearing how much my various family members are loved and appreciated, I always felt like I wanted to be known on my own terms. I was wary of receiving special treatment because someone knew one of my family members; I felt that my reputation should be built on my own merits. And so I always said “Hi, I’m Ilana,” and I left it at that.

This began to change when my children were born, and I started referring to myself as “Ima shel Matan.” I was no longer Ilana; my identity, as far as the other parents in the preschool was concerned, was that I was Matan’s mother. When I’d write messages on my phone to Matan’s friends’ parents, I’d simply sign my name “Ima shel Matan,” without bothering to mention my own name. This was especially helpful because I did not change my name when I got married, so my son and I had different last names. By referring to myself as his mother, I sidestepped any potential confusion.

But once I began introducing myself as my children’s mother, I realized that my name is not exclusively my own. Whether I would like it to be so or not, my actions reflect not just on me, but on my children. I want my children’s teachers to like me because I want them to like my children; I don’t want them to think I’m one of those annoying, pestering mothers, because then they might not have patience for my son. By the same token, I want to come across as lovely and amicable when interacting with my son’s friends, because I want them to associate these qualities with my son. And in thinking about all that I hoped to bequeath to my son by association, I realized how fortunate I am to be associated with my parents’ good name. “A good name is greater than the finest oil” (Ecclesiastes 7:1). Oil is used to anoint kings, whose position is generally hereditary. I would like to be able to anoint my children with my good name, the way my parents have anointed me with theirs.

More recently, when introducing myself, I notice that things have changed. Ever since my book was published, other people are increasingly likely to associate me with my memoir rather than with my family. “Oh, are you the one who wrote that daf yomi book?” they will ask me. And I will smile and nod, because I feel that at last I have earned my name.

And yet we are not expected to get by on our own names alone. Many of us are not blessed with the ability to make a name for ourselves, and in Judaism we are encouraged—if not mandated—to appeal to the names of those who came before us. In the opening paragraph of the Amidah, in the first of the eighteen benedictions that comprise this prayer, we approach God by invoking those who came before us in the hope that God will remember them and therefore give us the time of day: “Blessed are you, our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” We appeal to a God who “remembers the merits of our forefathers, and will bring redemption to the sons of their sons for the sake of His name.” We have no expectation that God will remember us on account of anything we did. But maybe, just maybe, we will merit to receive God’s attention if we immediately remind God that we are related to our spiritual forbears.

Although we invoke all three of the patriarchs, it is Abraham whose name is probably most likely to win us divine favor. No one has more name recognition that Abraham. After all, the whole reason that God chose Abraham was so as to make Abraham’s name great so that everyone on earth might receive blessing through him: “And I will bless you, and I will make your name great. And you shall be a blessing…and all the nations of the earth shall receive blessing through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). A midrash (Genesis 39:2) compares Abraham to a vial of perfume. God tells Abraham to leave his home and set off on a long journey so that Abraham’s name will become known wherever he goes, like a vial of perfume that is opened so that it’s fragrance spreads far and wide. God wishes for Abraham to travel far so that Abraham’s faith in the one God will also spread far. By making Abraham’s name great, God is making the divine name great as well.

And so Abraham made God’s name great, and by invoking Abraham, we seek to make our own names sufficiently great so that God will heed our prayers and bring redemption. We want to ride on Abraham’s coattails in the hope that God will pay attention to us even though our own merits pale in comparison to his. Back when I was at Harvard, there was much talk of “legacy” students – those who were accepted to the university only because their parents or grandparents, who had also been students, had gone on to donate large sums of money. No one at Harvard wanted to be outted as legacy student; everyone wanted to believe they had been accepted on their own merits alone.

As Jews, we are all legacy students. We have been fortunate to inherit the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and we hope that we will merit to get in to God’s good graces thanks to them. Moreover, we are proud of our legacy. We invoke our ancestors’ names not sheepishly, but as a badge of pride. And so I have been trying to learn from this invocation. When I introduce myself these days, I try to use my last name, even though it still doesn’t come easily. Maybe the person I am talking to will recognize my name on account of my book, or on account of my siblings, or on account of my parents. It doesn’t really matter. I am grateful to my parents and to my spiritual forbears for the legacy they bequeathed to me, and I can only pray that I will merit to use my name, too, to make God’s name great.

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