from the heart of jerusalem

Pinchas answers the question: What’s in a name?


I still remember the moment, 30 years later. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, our rosh yeshiva at Har Etzion, was giving his advanced Talmud lecture to about 60 students. As he looked up from his books and scanned the room, you could feel the tension in the air.

Most students, myself included, were terrified of this moment. The word genius does not do Rav Lichtenstein justice; beyond his great rabbinic leadership and Talmudic mind, he was uncompromising in his pursuit of truth. When he called on a student to read, it usually resulted in a series of questions that tested the student’s knowledge and whether he could extrapolate what we had been obligated to prepare; often the questions seemed to undermine some of the ideas we had studied in advance.

There was no shortage of students who would sit in the back rows and duck when Rav Lichtenstein looked up, but I was in the second row, and apparently this was my day. Two words filled the air: “Binny, tomar!” — Binny, read!

Sweat ran down my back, and the memory of a boy who had been mercilessly grilled a week before flashed through my mind. But when it was over, more than the intensity and exhilaration of having survived all of Rav Lichtenstein’s questions, was something even more powerful that took me a while to identify. It was the first time that I realized for certain that Rav Lichtenstein knew who I was.

Thirty years later, I am still humbled by that knowledge. Why was it so meaningful to hear Rav Lichtenstein say my name?

In this week’s parsha of Pinchas we are told of the untimely death of Tzelafchad (Bamidbar 27:6-10), who “died of his own sins and had no sons.”

In what some see as a feminist moment, Tzelafchad’s daughters come before Moshe demanding their inheritance: “Give us a possession of land among our father’s brothers.” Moshe seems perplexed. He brings the question before G-d Himself, who responds that the women have spoken correctly.

One wonders, though, why Moshe needs to bring this question before G-d. He received at Sinai all the laws, including those of inheritance, and it’s hard to imagine this would not include an event as obviously possible as a man dying with only daughters. (The question of why inheritance laws differ for sons and daughters has less to do with gender equality and more to do with tribal lineage following the male line, but that is a topic for another time.)

Considering how many levels of lower judiciaries were established by Yitro (see Shemot 18), one wonders why Moshe himself was even involved.

A careful look at the case, however, reveals that the real issue here is not simply a land grab. Tzelafchad’s daughters’ real concern was for their father’s name: “Why should the name of our father be erased from among his family because he had no son?”

This is not the only time the law is concerned with ensuring that a man’s name not be forgotten. The Torah discusses what happens when a man dies with no children; his brother, or closest relative, must marry his widow in a levirate marriage designed to ensure that the name of the dead brother is not lost or forgotten. What is so important about a person’s name?

When we refer to G-d, we have a strange tradition to not actually pronounce His name, but to use euphemisms (such as “Hashem”) or substitution of letters (such as “Elokim”). There is even one 72-letter name that we no longer know how to pronounce.

The first time discussion in the Torah centers on names is the story of the Tower of Babel. Those who survived the flood find their way to a valley, where they decide to build a tower that will reach the heavens. G-d finds fault with this project, scattering the people to the corners of the earth. But a careful look at the verses tells us that their real aim was “to make for ourselves a name” (Bereishit 11:4). Why was that problematic?

There is an ancient book, ascribed to Rabbi Akiva, known as the Sefer ha-Otiot: the book of letters. The word “name” is comprised of two letters: shin and mem. The Sefer ha-Otiot explains that the letter shin comprised of three legs rising in different directions, representing chaos, while the letter mem is almost a perfect circle, representing wholeness and perfection. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “peace,” shalom, starts with a shin representing chaos and ends with a mem representing harmony, because that is what peace is all about.

And that is essentially what a name does. When you walk into a room and don’t know anyone’s names, there is a degree of chaos and unease. But as soon as you learn people’s names, there is a sense of calm. A name brings chaos into harmony.

That was the mistake of the people who built the Tower of Babel: they wanted to be the source of all peace and harmony. But there is only one source of order in the world, and that is G-d, whom we call “The Name,” which reminds us not to delude ourselves into imagining that we have fully understood Him. Everything is hidden in the name, which is why we cannot pronounce G-d’s name. We can never fully understand G-d.

At the center of the word neshama, “soul,” is the word “name.” Chassidut teaches that hidden in our name is the essence of who we are. The Talmud suggests that a couple naming a child is invested with Divine inspiration, allowing them to choose correctly. In ensuring that a person’s name is not forgotten, we ensure that their purpose and their essence is not lost.

But how was Moshe to know whether this was the motivation of the daughters of Tzelafchad, as opposed to a desire to acquire land? For this reason, he asks for Hashem’s help: because only G-d can determine a person’s true thoughts. When G-d agrees with the women, it is clear that their intentions are pure.

As we go through life, we encounter various distractions that seem so significant: houses, cars, and material possessions. We would do well to remember that what really lasts, what really defines us, are not the things we think we have, but the purpose we live up to and leave behind.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.