What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.[1]

So says Juliet to her Romeo, as she struggles with the burden of his family name of ‘Capulet’. Of course, she is right. And yet as soon as we utter or write the word, ‘rose’: the varied yet distinctive scents, colours and shapes of this unique flower, fill our minds. Names are like this. And what is true about how we apprehend the world we name around us is also true of us and our names, given and chosen. In the past couple of weeks, one particular name has been in the headlines: Nelson Mandela. As soon as we say his name, we can picture him in all the various images the media has given us: the angry, defiant lawyer-come-militant, who stood in the dock in 1964, proclaiming his readiness to die for the cause of a democratic and free South Africa;[2] the older man, relaxed, smiling and waving, holding the hand of his wife, Winnie, as he emerged from 27 years’ imprisonment in 1990;[3] the sober President, and later elder world statesman, who, yet, continued to smile and laugh, joke and dance, in his colourful large print batik silk shirts – and even donned a Springbok rugby shirt and wore it with pride, when the Rugby World Cup came to South Africa in 1995.

It was his teacher at his first school, Miss Mdingane, who named him ‘Nelson’. He never knew why she chose this name for him, but the giving of English names to African children was undoubtedly one of the consequences of British colonialism. In his later years, Nelson Mandela was known, with reverence and affection, as ‘Madiba’. This is the name of his clan and refers to his ancestor, Madiba, a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the 18th century. He was also spoken of with love as ‘Tata’, which is the –isiXhosa word for ‘father’ – because he was seen by the people of South Africa as a father of the new, multiracial nation.

Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela also had an abundance of other names: the name ‘Khulu’, which means ‘great’, ‘paramount’, ‘grand’, highlighted his pre-eminence – and also his place not only as the father, but also as the grandfather of the nation – since ‘Khulu’ is also a shortened form of the isiXhosa word ‘uBawomkhulu’, meaning ‘grandfather’. When, following Xhosa tradition, he underwent the rite of circumcision and initiation into manhood at 16 years old, he was given the name Dalibhunga, which means ‘creator’ or ‘founder of the council’ or ‘convenor of the dialogue’. According to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where I gleaned this information about Nelson Mandela’s names – and I quote: ‘The correct use of this name when greeting Mr Mandela is “Aaah! Dalibhunga”’[4]

Each one of Nelson Mandela’s names tells us something important about him and about his relationship with others. But it is his birth name, which is far less well known – Rolihlahla – given to him by his father, which reminds us his long struggle against apartheid, much of which he spent in confinement. Rolihlahla is, and I quote again from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, ‘an isiXhosa name which means “pulling the branch of a tree”, but colloquially it means “troublemaker”’.

So: Rolihlahla Madiba Nelson Dalibhunga Tata Mandela – to put his names in chronological order – the troublemaker, who became the father of the new South Africa. His names tell us so much about him, about his multifaceted identity, and about how he has been – and continues to be – regarded.

I have chosen to talk to you about ‘names’ today, not just because one of the greatest individuals – perhaps the greatest – to emerge on the world stage in the second half of the 20th century has just died, and so it is fitting that we honour and remember him. This week we begin reading the second Book of the Torah. Known by its English name of Greek origins, Exodus, its Hebrew name is Sh’mot, ‘Names’, because the book begins: V’eilleh sh’mot b’ney Yisrael – ‘These are the names of the children of Israel’ – or, rather, more precisely, the sons of Israel (Jacob as he was first known). There is no mention of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob – or of the names of any of the other female members of the family. We read (Exodus 1:1-4):

V’eilleh sh’mot b’ney Yisrael – These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; every man came with his household: / Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; / Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; / Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

Joseph is missing from this list because, of course, he was already in Egypt. It is the reign of a new Pharaoh, generations later, ‘who did not know Joseph’ (1:8) that sets the new narrative of slavery and persecution in train. That narrative introduces us to a new cast of characters: including, the midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah, whose names evoke the cries and groans of women in childbirth[5] – and, of course, Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

As soon as I mention the sibling leaders of the Exodus in the order in which they are treated in the Torah – rather than their order of birth – we realise, not only the power of naming and names, but the way in which the differences in power between people are asserted in the ways in which their names are presented.[6] After the valiant midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah, have succeeded in subverting Pharaoh’s genocidal decree by saving the Hebrew baby boys (1:15-22), the narrative shifts in Exodus chapter 2 to the story of one particular family (2:1-10), and the saving of one particular baby boy – by ‘the woman’, who bore him (:2), ‘the child’s mother’ (:8) and ‘his sister’ (:4, 7) – both unnamed. While the two midwives are named because they are the centre of their particular tale, the mother and sister, who were responsible for ensuring the survival of the baby in their household, are presented only in relation to the baby – who is named at the end of the story, by the third female involved in his redemption from death – who is also not given a name: ‘Pharaoh’s daughter’ (:5,7,8,10). Pharaoh’s daughter adopts the child as her son, after his mother has finished nursing him and he has been weaned. We read (2:10):

When the child grew up, she [that is, the mother], brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, and said, ‘because I drew him out of the water’ – ki min-ha-mayim m’shitihu

And so, the Torah introduces the reader to the hero of the tale, the future saviour of the people.

But that is not the end of the matter. On one level, the Torah narrative reads like any other ancient patriarchal text, chronicling the tales of great men. But the Torah is also an ancient text of an utterly different order. As we read the well-known story in the first portion of the book, known also as Sh’mot, we discover that Moses isn’t, after all, the central character.

Indeed, the central character is not a man – or, a woman – or a human being of any kind. As the tale in Exodus chapter 2 unfolds (:11-22), some years later, after killing a taskmaster he saw beating a slave, Moses the Egyptian prince turned fugitive, fled to Midian, married the daughter of a Midianite priest, and became a Shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock. Then, one day he had an experience that changed his life forever. We learn in Exodus chapter 3 that when Moses led the flock achar ha-midbar ‘behind the wilderness, he came to Horev, the mountain of God, and a messenger of the Eternal appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush’ (:1-2). Captivated by the sight of the bush that was not consumed by the flames, Moses turned aside to look at it (:3). He then heard a voice calling him out of the midst of the flames (:4).

The central character of the Exodus is an ineffable mystery – utterly un-graspable – and unnameable. How can one put into words the experience of the ineffable? The Torah narrative attempts to do this by conjuring up images of ‘fire’ and ‘a voice’. And it does much more than this. How extraordinary that Sh’mot, the Book of Names that relates the Exodus of the slaves, the oppressed and persecuted descendants of Israel/Jacob, whose renaming was such a transformative moment in his life,[7] should lead Moses into the light of the shimmering desert and that burning bush only to reveal the absolute nameless mystery of the Eternal Liberator of the slaves. And so, we read that Moses, over-awed and overwhelmed, asks the mystery that has apprehended him for a name (3:13):

When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ what shall I say to them?

In response to his question, Moses receives an astonishing reply (:14)

Then God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh asher ehyeh’ – and continued: ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites, Ehyeh sent me to you.’

You may be wondering why I haven’t fully translated the verse. I will do that now: Ehyeh asher ehyeh means ‘I am that I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’ – the Hebrew imperfect form of the verb ‘to be’ used here can be translated in both a present and future sense. The translation points to the mystery – but it is only the Hebrew that succeeds in evoking the mystery: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. As Gabriel Josipovici puts it in a matchless passage that I have quoted elsewhere:[8]

The phrase, ehyeh asher ehyeh… is as near as we can get in language to pure breath, non-articulation, non-division. In uttering, God both defines himself as pure potential and repudiates the kind of definition Moses – and we – are looking for. But he also indicates by his palindromic utterance, with its repeated ‘h’ and ‘sh’ sounds, that his is the breath that lies beneath all utterance and all action,  a living breath which does not move forward yet does not remain static, upholding both speech and the  world.

Moses learnt an important lesson about the ineffable at the burning bush – but he would not have learnt it if he had simply walked on and not turned aside to apprehend the ‘great sight’ (Exodus 3:3). And so it is with us: The mystery, by definition, transcends time and space to address us today – but only if we are prepared to acknowledge it. Both cyber-space and the bookshelves of libraries the world over are filled with accounts of oppressive regimes and freedom struggles, and the key figures involved: All the events and the details – and the names of places, peoples, and individuals – including, individuals of monumental stature, like Nelson Mandela. But there is something else – the ineffable and unnameable: ‘the breath that lies beneath all utterance and all action, a living breath which does not move forward yet does not remain static, upholding both speech and the  world’. The tale of the burning bush challenges us to acknowledge the ineffable and unnameable beyond our grasp. May each one of us find our own way to apprehend the mystery that apprehends us, summoning us to engage, to struggle, to liberate, to act. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

21st December 2013 – 18th Tevet 5774

[1] Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene II, lines 47-48

[2] Nelson Mandela`s statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, 20 April 1964. See http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3430. The statement concludes: ‘During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

[3] 11 February 1990

[4] http://www.nelsonmandela.org/content/page/names

[5] Shifra – from the Hebrew root, Shin Pei Reish is related to the noun, shofar – ‘horn’. Pu’ah – from the Hebrew root Pei Vav Cheit – to ‘puff’, ‘blow’. See Jeremiah 4:31, where he refers, metaphorically, to the voice of a woman in childbirth, ‘panting’ – tityappei’ach (although here the root is Yud Pei Cheit – a by-form of Pei Vav Cheit.

[6] Numbers 26:59, gives the correct birth-order for Aaron and Moses, but mentions Miriam, the first-born, last: ‘The name of Amram’s wife was Yocheved, daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; she bore to Amram, Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam.’ Micah 6:4 puts Moses first: ‘For I brought you up from the land of Egypt’s, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.’

[7] See Genesis 32:23-33

[8] See ‘Beyond the Divine Autocrat: Speaking of God Today’, in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul, 2012, p. 146).