My first thought when I finished reading this week’s portion was, “Wow, that was a lot.” In one Torah portion, the Bible takes us through two iterations of the creation story, the naming of all the creatures in the world, the tragedy of Cain and Abel, and a litany of descendants spanning from Adam to Noah.
Slow down, biblical author! Give us a minute to process all of this. Sheesh.
There are so many themes to choose from in this portion. The way the Bible frames gender relationships, for example, is fascinating. It would also be great to explore how each creation story zooms in and out of certain details, or the relationship between Cain and Abel (and between each of the brothers and God).
There’s so much in there, but there’s one thread that, to me, seems to connect all the passages — from the very beginning to the final verse, in Genesis 6:8, which reads, “But Noah found favor with the Lord.” That thread is names.
The practice of naming things is an interesting one. Why do we even do it? Names matter, though. When we name something or someone we’re doing more than stringing together syllables we’ll be using to refer to them. We’re giving them identities and substance, we’re offering wishes for certain elements to be a part of their lives, we’re connecting them to traditions and values.
I am named Mikhal Hannah, for instance, not only because my parents liked the name, but because they hoped that the memories of my Great Uncle Manuel and Great Great Aunt Hannah would bless me throughout my life. I like to think that they have, although I didn’t know them.
Actually, my parents would say that my name is Michal, not Mikhal, which is a different story for a different time.
My kiddo is named for my wife’s mother and for his two great grandfathers. When we named him, we wanted to imbue his life story with the values and essences that these people represented to us. His name would serve as a reminder that the family members that came before him, while gone from the physical world, are still a part of who he is.
This whole portion is full of names, along with the reasons behind them; the Bible loves giving reasons for what people are called. Adam literally means Human. The first woman has two names — first Eesha, from the word Eesh (which means man). “This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken,” says Adam in Genesis 2:23. Then she is named Chava (Eve), when she is able to give birth, because she will be the mother of all Chayim (life). Cain is named thus because his birth is a sign that Eve has made (kaniti is the verb, which has the same root as Cain) a son with the help of God. Abel’s name means nothingness and, indeed, he doesn’t last very long in the story.
There’s also a lot of another kind of naming — making sense of things by giving them a title. “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky,” says Genesis 2:19, “and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.”
One can imagine Adam, brand new resident of the Garden, pointing at animals and saying, “Okay, that’s a parrot. That one we’ll call marmot. And you — you look like an ibex to me.” How much less afraid he must have felt, knowing how to refer to each horned or feathered creature that he encountered.
This is how we make sense of the world. It’s how my kiddo is making sense of the world, right now, as he gains more and more language skills. He’s constantly asking us what things are, or trying out the English and Hebrew words he learns in different contexts. “Ma zeh ha-ra’ash ha-zeh, Eema?” he asks my wife (what is that noise?), when he hears something loud at the playground.
He is naming things, or asking us to do so, all day long. While this can be a little tedious (there are only so many times a person can answer the same question in the space of five minutes), it’s also kind of extraordinary. What he’s really asking is for us to help him understand where he is and what the heck is going on. It’s like his eyes have opened and, upon opening, he’s discovered a whole lot of new things to take apart and examine.
Where are people going when they leave our house? How can it be that we know different people with the same name? Why can you sometimes hear the fire truck but you can’t see it? He’s asking us to give everything a title, but also a definition and an explanation. Both for objects and for processes or events.
Suddenly, so many things we have always taken for granted need explanation and that’s been an unexpected blessing. His unbridled curiosity and incessant questioning are making my wife and I rethink things as we try to describe them. Seeing things through his eyes is sometimes, not always, like seeing things for the first time.
I hope he doesn’t lose this part of himself, although I know he’ll lose it to some extent. We all do, as we get older and learn how to put more things in boxes. At least if those boxes can stay flexible, if the labels on them can be made to change, if his inquisitiveness can stay vibrant, then all our lives will be that much richer.