Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thought Tools Issue #44 - Names Matter

Names Matter

October 30th, 2008 1st day of Cheshvan, 5769 Issue # 44People often ask what made me convert a three-week visit to the United States into a life-changing immigration. One of the things that helped me decide to remain in the United States was that folks addressed one another respectfully, using names whenever possible.
I watched strangers putting their hands out and introducing themselves to one another by name. As I spoke at events around the country, I noticed the organizers making every effort to remember and use attendees’ names. Even employers called their employees by name rather than by job description like Cook or Gardener, which was common in the British Empire. The colonial, and slightly condescending, “My good man,” was noticeably absent too.

Why do we feel so flattered when a casual acquaintance or a boss remembers our name correctly and so annoyed when we are mistakenly called by a wrong one? We certainly would feel insulted to hear ourselves addressed as “Hey you."

Names are so important that an entire book out of the Five Books of Moses is called Names. That is right, the second of the five, known as Exodus in English, is really called the Book of Names in Hebrew—SHeMOT.

Considering that this book is really called Names, the following verses from the first few chapters of Exodus sound almost comical. No names are mentioned. In fact, God seems to go to great lengths to avoid mentioning anyone’s actual name.

And a new king arose over Egypt (Exodus 1:8)
  • And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, the name of one was Shifrah*, and the name of the other Puah. (Exodus 1:15) (Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that these two were actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister. The names Shifra and Puah are Hebrew words that describe how they handled the babies, somewhat like calling a cook, Cook or a runner, Swifty.)
  • A man of the house of Levi, went and took for his wife a daughter of Levi. (Exodus 2:1)
  • And the woman conceived and bore a son (Exodus 2:2)
  • And his sister stood afar, to see what would happen to him (Exodus 2:4)
  • And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river (Exodus 2:5)
  • His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I call for you a nurse?(Exodus 2:7)
  • Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the girl went and called the child’s mother (Exodus 2:8)
  • See what I mean? Though we know the real names of these characters, and they are used in later chapters, those names are hardly used in the beginning of the book. Only from Exodus 2:10 when Pharaoh’s daughters names the baby Moses and onwards, do names return to normal usage. Why?

    The point is that slavery is as dehumanizing as not having a name. The book of Names opens with listing the names of Jacob’s sons who came to Egypt. They were free men. But their children were soon enslaved. Pharaoh’s daughter’s adoption of Moses elevates him from slavery and starts the road to redemption. Names become used again.

    This opening of the Book of Exodus, or Names, with its curious absence of names, demonstrates this important equation:

    slavery = no names

    It is just as true to say that when you deprive people of names, you are creating circumstances of slavery. That is why giving people numbers instead of using their real names is part of a dehumanizing process.

    no names = (leads to) slavery

    using people’s names = (leads to) respect and social integrity

    Though I have been an American citizen for many years, the lesson that people truly appreciate being addressed by name remains an important one. I am sure that you too have found that whether in your work or personal life, learning folks’ names and using them is always valued.
    Edited by Susan Lapin

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