“What should I call you?” My father loved it whenever someone asked him that question.
“Just don’t call me late for dinner,” he always answered.
As it turns out, however, what people call us may have unsuspected power over the course of our lives.
In a recent Life Advancer article titled “The Laws of Attraction,” Lyon G. Payley Zonamyari explored the ancient wisdom of numerology that reveals meanings and connections hidden within the names of things and people. This discipline has developed in the linguistic culture of Egypt, China, and France. In Hebrew, it is called gematria, and it plays a profound role in Jewish tradition.
Here’s one of countless examples: the numerical value of the word ashir, meaning “wealthy,” is 580; ani, meaning “poor,” has a numerical value of 130; and the numerical value of tein, which means “give,” is 450, equal to 580 minus 130. The difference between wealth and poverty ultimately depends upon our willingness to give to others in need.
But there is so much more to names than hidden numerical values. The Hebrew word for “thing,” davar, also has the meaning, “word.” A name is not merely a label; it is an expression of the thing itself.
For instance, in Hebrew a donkey is a chamor. A variant form of the same word, chomer, means “mortar,” the cement used in laying bricks. And so the animal most characterized by its stubbornness is called by a name that also connotes “thickness.” The dog, known for its loyalty, is called a kelev, which can also be read as k’lev, which means “of the heart.” Names can provide insights into the nature of the world, if we know how to interpret them.
Indeed, the sages of the Talmud taught that the last remnant of prophecy in the world manifests when a baby receives its name. If parents had one name in mind and accidently said another at the naming ceremony, custom dictates that the name they gave, not the one they intended to give, is the true name of the child. Recognizing the unique character of a child – as reflected in his name – is the first step to successful parenting. As King Solomon said, “Teach a child according to his way.”
The significance attributed to names goes even further. The Talmud suggests that by changing a name one can change one’s fate. For example, in cases of grave illness, it is common to add the name Rafael, meaning “healer,” or the name Chaim, meaning “life.” A change in outlook and personal vision can sometimes be the best medicine to heal the most dire maladies.
The meaning of a name can offer an insight into one’s intrinsic character. The name David means “beloved,” suggesting the capacity to form deep emotional bonds. The name Deborah means “bee,” suggesting an industrious nature as well as a personality that can both sting and sweeten. The name Abigail means, “source of joy,” suggesting a talent for providing happiness to others. Awareness of our innate, individual abilities can motivate us to develop potential that would otherwise remain dormant deep within us.
Our names also connect us to our cultural identity: tradition teaches that because the Jews kept Jewish names and did not adopt Egyptian names, they survived the oblivion of assimilation during their long exile in Egypt. A strong sense of self is the best protection against losing your own unique identity amidst the storm of mass marketing, media messaging, and peer pressure.
Finally, a well-placed name or word can inspire us to greatness, or inspire others to recognize greatness. Everyone knows the biblical story of Moses at the burning bush. When Moses questioned whether he was up to the job of leading his people out of slavery, the Almighty said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
Moses answered: “A staff.”
Upon which the Almighty said: “With this staff you will perform the miracles in Egypt.”
The significance of this exchange is illuminating. Moses could have answered in one of three ways. Since he was already an old man, he could have answered, “a cane.” Since he was, by profession, a shepherd, he could have answered, “a shepherd’s crook.” But he chose to answer, “A staff” which, in Hebrew, is identical with the word meaning “scepter,” a symbol of leadership.
When confronted with his destiny, Moses rose to the occasion by recognizing and acknowledging his own potential for greatness. And because he did so, his people also recognized him as a leader and followed him to freedom and toward their own national destiny.
A rose by any other name might swell as sweet, but it wouldn’t really be a rose. Our names can summon us to great things, if we strive to live up to the purpose and potential that they hold for us.
Author Bio: Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a Talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. His forthcoming book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages, is due out in July.