Chayei Sarah: A man with no name

Chayei Sarah: A man with no name

Temple Emeth, Teaneck, Reform

Our names are essential to our identity. Most of us have a first name that was chosen for us by our parents and a surname that traces farther back into our family history.

In the Torah, most of the names convey a meaning or are given an explanation. Adam, it is strongly hinted, comes from the word adamah, for soil, because he was created out of soil. Eve comes from the word for life, because she was to be the mother of all living things (Genesis 3:20). Beginning with the birth of Cain in Genesis 4:1, it is generally the mothers who convey names onto their children. This tradition takes on special meaning in Genesis 29 and 30, as Rachel and Leah choose names for their children that reflect the rivalry between them.

Several individuals in the Torah are given multiple names: Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; and Hosea becomes Joshua. In rabbinic tradition, Moses has seven names. The implication is that multiple names are a sign of honor and of closeness to God.

With so much tradition and lore surrounding the names of our ancestors in the Torah, we come across a section of the Torah in this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, that draws our attention in the opposite direction. In Genesis Chapter 24, the future of the Jewish people is left to a man whose name we are never told.

The man in question is Abraham’s servant, who is tasked—sworn, really—with the responsibility of finding a wife for Isaac. The man takes an oath, assembles a caravan of camels, determines criteria for choosing the right woman, and negotiates in Abraham’s name to have her return to him. He even offers a prayer to God in Abraham’s name.

But throughout this lengthy chapter (67 verses in all) we never read his name. In this regard, he is like Noah’s wife, Lot’s wife, and the stranger who directs Joseph toward his brothers. All are essential to the narrative, but none are named in the Torah.

Rabbinic tradition identifies the servant as Eliezer, the same servant who in Genesis 15 is designated as Abraham’s heir, since at that point he has no children. You can agree or disagree with the rabbis on this point. But this rabbinic effort simply reflects what the Torah already makes clear. Names establish honor. Names command our respect. Only people with names can change history.

We can see this in our society today. In my own life, I do not know the names of the people who mow my lawn or deliver my mail. I know the names of about half of the neighbors who live on my block (a number that has increased because I have a dog, and therefore a reason to go outside more often and say hello to my neighbors) but the other half remain anonymous to me. I depend on these people to beautify my property, to connect me to the world, to look out for me and my family. And yet, I am ashamed to admit, I don’t know their names. I suspect I’m not alone.

This type of anonymity tends to reinforce the oppression of the powerless. People without names are more likely to be exploited by their employers or have their rights trampled on by society. I think it is for this reason that the rabbis wanted Abraham’s servant to have a name. If he was to represent Abraham, pray to God, negotiate with Laban and accompany Rebecca — all named entities — he too should enjoy the honor and benefit of a name.

In the digital age, we see that anonymity takes on two primary characteristics. The first is that of the anonymous internet troll. This is someone, who using the cover of anonymity provided by platforms such as Twitter, will harass, stalk or intimidate another. Sometimes it is to suppress someone with a different political opinion, but sometimes anonymous trolling is simply done for sport. Anonymity is then a cloak to mask uncivil, abusive, and sometimes criminal behavior.

On the other side of that coin are the people who remain anonymous because anonymity protects them when they speak out against the excesses of powerful people or institutions. We cannot trust an anonymous accusation the same way we trust a named source. Even so, an anonymous claim can be investigated and corroborated. In some cases anonymity is essential to giving the powerless the chance to speak out.

The Israeli poet Zelda (fittingly, she did not author her poems using her last name) wrote a famous poem entitled “Each Man Has a Name.” In it she lists the many influences and experiences that give us a name. The poem implies that we all have several names, and that they define us and help us understand who we are.

May we strive to honor the people who serve us by learning their names. May anonymity always be employed to protect the powerless and never exploit them. And may our names help us understand who we are and always bring us respect. Shabbat Shalom.

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