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What's So Funny? -- CHRONICLE Online/The WORD 08/24/23

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah

August 24, 2023 7 Elul 5783 Ki Teitzei Last night, as part of the Republican presidential debate, the candidate Vivek Ramaswamy rhetorically asked, “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name and what the heck is he doing in the middle of this debate stage?” Whether it was intentional or not, he was echoing a line offered up at the 2004 Democratic National Convention by then-Senator Barack Obama who described his younger self as “a skinny kid with a funny name.” I realize that Mr. Ramaswamy is getting some grief from some of his fellow Republicans as a result of this coincidence because in today’s political climate, candidates from one political party are not supposed pay homage in any way to a political figure from the other party. As someone who grew up with a “funny” name – though I was never really skinny! – I find it sad that we can’t acknowledge this unifying experience across political boundaries. After all, there people with “funny” names across the political spectrum. Often, our “funny” names tell the story of our family, of our community, of our people. My full name – Avram – tells the story of my maternal grandfather who was born in Gombin (Gabin), Poland – a city that dates back nearly a millennium and was known for its craftsman and tradesman. My grandfather was a carpenter who felt compelled to leave his hometown before World War II and made his way to Palestine. It was difficult to make a living in Palestine during the Great Depression and he ultimately took his wife and daughter (my mom) to the US to see if he could make some money to bring back to Palestine. Thanks to World War II and the arrival of more children, he never quite made it back to Palestine. That’s what I think about when I say my “funny” name. In Judaism, there are many traditions around the giving of names. And those traditions can vary depending upon geographic region. For example, Sephardi Jews from Western Europe name children after living relatives, but Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe only name children after deceased loved ones. Most Jewish children receive a secular name in their spoken language (generally English for American Jews) as well a Hebrew name for ritual use. This tradition may go back to the Book of Esther, in which the main character had a Persian name – Esther – as well as a Hebrew name – Hadassah. However, some of us only get a Hebrew name (like me!). In Genesis 17, both Abram and Sarai changed their names. A single Hebrew letter was added to each of their names, which yielded their new names – Abraham and Sarah. The additional letter represented the name of God. So, their new names indicated God’s presence and protection. Many people today choose names for their children that somehow incorporate the name of God in order extend God’s presence and protection to their children. Whether names are common or unusual, they are not chosen lightly. They are imbued with meaning. But, perhaps, the ancient sage Rabbi Shimon understood best the significance of names. In Pirkei Avot, he said: “There are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood and the crown of Royalty. The crown of a good name surpasses them all.” And there’s nothing “funny” about that! Shalom, RAF.

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