What’s in a Jewish Name? By Aviva Meshwork
What’s in a Jewish name? Quite a bit. Just ask any one of our JWRP Momentum participants who didn’t have a Jewish name prior to standing upon Masada and receiving one. Most, if not all of our participants who experienced the receiving of a Jewish name, described it as a monumental event in their lives.They used words such as "powerful", "special", "holy", "life-changing". Yet, despite all of these being excellent adjectives to describe their emotions at the time, it was still, for many, a struggle to fully articulate their thoughts and feelings. The magnitude of the experience was so pointed that it was hard to encapsulate it with words. The reason is that what they were experiencing at the time of receiving their Jewish names was spiritual in nature and, as JWRP Trip Leader Adrienne Gold Davis once told me, spiritual experiences are difficult to explain.
According to Rabbi Simmons Shraga, “The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment.” I can recall every time my husband and I came up with the names of each our children. It was a very special moment of spiritual unification between the two of us, and I felt that something major was taking place.
Our Sages explain that the meanings of our names are actually a testament to our essence, our unique thumbprint, and makes aspects about our personal character traits known to us. The very name we are given reveals to us, and guides us towards, our special paths in life. Additionally, the Talmud tells us that parents have prophetic insight when choosing a name for their child, as an angelic whisper is heard by the parents, telling them the name their Jewish child will express. (see Talmud – Brachot 7b; Arizal – Sha'ar HaGilgulim 24b). In reality, exploring the meaning of our Hebrew names can be part of a larger process of self-discovery, and the unleashing of the power within. The clarity and insight that we can derive from our names can be very enlightening.
Now, I turn to Queen Esther, our unlikely heroine from the story of Purim. Coming from very lonely and challenging beginnings, Esther was orphaned from the time she was a newborn and was raised by her loving and learned relative, Mordechai. Yet, despite her difficult circumstances and sad beginnings, it was in large part Esther who saved the Jewish people in Shushan from total annihilation. Quick recap: Haman, the evil right hand man to King Ahashverosh, hated the Jewish people with a passion. He had a plan, for which he attained Royal approval, that involved massacring every single Jewish man, woman and child in Shushan (modern day Iraq) on 13th day of the Jewish month of Adar. Together Esther and Mordechai brought down Haman and his family, and reversed the decree against the Jews while bringing unity and esteem back to the Jewish people.
For us today, it is difficult to imagine that in order for this series of events to be accomplished, there was no need for a full-fledged war, complete with armies of soldiers carrying out devastating battles resulting in casualties on both sides. In fact, this war between good and evil was fought on a different playing field – one much more lofty and spiritual. Rather than fighting with knives, guns and swords, the tools for battle were actually concealed in Esther’s name.
The Hebrew root word of Esther is ‘hester’, which means ‘hidden’, and it was indeed the essence of this hiddenness that required her self-control, modesty, and deeply rooted faith that served as the greatest asset in Esther’s arsenal against the impending genocide of her people. As part of the plan to save the Jewish people, Mordechai instructed Esther (who was unwillingly picked to become Queen) to keep her Jewish identity a secret from King Ahshverosh until it’s due time. As a result, she had to live as Jewess in secret, apart from her community, and especially from her beloved Mordechai. It is difficult for us here today to conceive how much of a test this was for Esther, as she was a devoted and connected Jew, both to G-d and to her people. The sacrifice of keeping her identity hidden until the appropriate time, albeit for the sake of the Jewish people, is difficult to measure.
In fact, it was due to Esther’s inner qualities and her hidden appeal that charmed the newly widowed king in the first place. His search for a new wife took time and effort, due to the prospects spending months preparing with makeup and oils to impress the king. Yet, it was a reluctant Esther that he chose to become his Queen who did none of this, but rather, came before the king simply as she was. It was obvious to the king that there was a specialness to her that was revealed through the depth of her concealment, including her modesty and humility, which lead to her becoming the Queen. Even more importantly, she was able to fulfill her most necessary role: to save the Jewish people from certain death.
Esther’s role in the Purim story was beyond compare and no one would dispute how challenging it was for her to fulfill it. Nevertheless, she was able to do her part and bring salvation to the Jews. Perhaps she knew what her name meant, perhaps not. Regardless, she lived up to it and used her G-d given talents, strengths, and traits that her name implied in order to serve the Jews of that time, and ultimately, the descendants from them that still live on today.
May we all have the clarity to know what we possess. May we all have the strength and courage to use what we have for the good.
Have a happy and meaningful Purim!
Aviva Meshwork is an educator, writer, and Trip Director for the JWRP. Originally from Toronto, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children.