What’s in a name? Quite a lot, but you need to know the story. My family name, Nevins, is now five generations old, chosen by my paternal great-grandfather Haskell Neviadomsky at the time of his naturalization. He came to this country in 1896, fleeing the czar’s draft, and apparently decided that he would never make it in America with such a long and foreign-sounding name. I imagine him visiting Brooklyn’s Nevins Street, and deciding on the spot to become Hyman Nevins.
Changes of name, whether within a generation or between generations, signal the conflicted agendas of continuity and change experienced by all families, and particularly by immigrants. They attempt to remember the old country while fitting into the new. They make gestures of self-invention that affect not only their own lives, but also those of their descendants. The ancestor’s original rationale may soon be forgotten, but the reverberations of their decision continue through the generations.
This week we read in Parashat Lekh Lekha about two name changes, as Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. They have already experienced many upheavals, travels, and travails, and they have achieved old age when God suddenly announces in Genesis chapter 17 the establishment of a covenant (brit) that will make Abram into an ancestor for many peoples, secure the land of Canaan for his descendants, and be symbolized by the covenant of flesh, brit milah, in him and his sons.
But first, the names must change: Abram and Sarai each gain the letter heh, and she loses the letter yod. For millennia, our sages have parsed the meaning of these new names and their significance for the changing fortunes of our first family. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntshitz, known as the K’li Y’kar, offers several explanations in his commentary, to which I will add some of my own twists. Continue reading