In our examination of the identity of the individual student and the way in which he/she connects to the wider Jewish community, we suggest starting with the subject of names.
Names are a key to identity, both individual and collective. Our name tends to be the first thing that we hear and - more often than not - the first word that we learn to say. Throughout our life, it is the root of our concept of self and our self-image. Our name is a way not only of expressing our individuality, but also of affirming ourselves as part of a wider group, be this family, tribe or people. The individual name that we are given at birth is only a part of the one that we earn for ourselves throughout our life: a name eventually comes to embody many associations that accumulate over the years. We speak of people as having a ‘good name’ or a ‘bad name.’ This midrash reflects this idea when it speaks of the three names that a person receives during his/her lifetime:
There are three names by which a person is called:
One which his father and mother call him,
And one which people call him,
And one which he earns for himself.
The best of all is the one that he earns for himself.
The poet Zelda expanded this midrash, creating out of the concept the very powerful poem ??? ??? ?? ?? - Every Person Has a Name. Here she enumerates the parts of a person’s life and experience that create the name that he/she bears. Nonetheless, following the midrash, Zelda recognizes that the root of a person’s identity is - and remains - the name assigned at birth. She begins her observations with the comment that each person has a name that is given by God and by his/her parents. Other names will develop and will be grafted onto the original center, the name provided by the person’s parents. The midrash is surely correct, however, when it states that the best of all names is the one that a person earns alone.
The subject is more complex than this, however. The names that we confer on our children are not only a basis for their identity: they are first and foremost powerful statements of the parents’ identity.