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What's in a Name?

By: SFW Students & Alumna
Leora Hefter (SFW '09)

Did you ever wonder where the dispositions within people come from? The Gemara (Berachos 7b) informs us that one’s name influences him. The Arizal develops this further, stating that a person could hypothetically determine their character by merely analyzing the origin of one’s name, seeing that it represents the essence of a person and their potential. This concept comes to the forefront in Parshas Lech Lecha, where Hashem chooses to change both Avram’s (Bereishis 17:5) and Sarai’s (Bereishis ) names. Avram had an extra “Hei” added to his name. Sarai’s name had previously ended with a "Yud"; Hashem replaced it with a "Hei", thus modifying Sarai to Sarah. In sum, both Avram and Sarai received a "Hei" in their names.

Initially, this sequence of events appears somewhat peculiar. Seemingly, Avraham and Sarah molded varying relationships with Hashem, and as such it would follow logically that Hashem imbue each of them with distinct names. What was the impetus for Sarah’s name to be changed, and what is the significance of the parallelism of a “Hei” with Avraham’s name? (See Maharal, Gur Aryeh (Ber. ) for an additional approach.)

Rashi (Bereishis 17:5,15) explains based on the Gemara Berachos (13a) the deeper meaning behind these alterations. Avram represents a conjugation of “Av Aram”, “father of Aram” (his hometown), and was henceforth to be Avraham, representative of “Av Hamon Goyim” (see Ber. 17:5), “father of a multitude of nations.” In elucidating Sarah’s modification one must look to the Hebrew grammar. A “Yud” at the end of a word indicates “mine”, while a “Hei” has a more global connotation. As such, Sarai with a “Yud” corresponds to “Sar Li”, “my governor” (i.e. of the Jewish people alone), while Sarah with a “Hei” would be “Sarah Al Hakol”, “governor over all”.

Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, zt”l, (Ber. ) develops a brilliant meaning behind Sarah's new name. He makes reference to Rashi’s explanation (ibid.), that Sarai and Sarah come from the root word “Sar”, a governor, and expands upon this notion. He highlights three varying nuances of the word “Sar” seen throughout the Torah, and how they are expressed in a governor’s persona. One connotation is the suppression of others. Another is to stretch above one’s surroundings and become the superior. The final interpretation is “one who keeps the bounds, sets the bounds, [and] keeps everything back to its due measure.” While the first two indicate a desire for authority, the third expresses no wish to become an oppressor over the community; rather, there is an interest of maintaining order in the given conditions. The third explanation is drawn upon in describing the smallest of Halachic measurements, the “Mesurah”, indicating that the ideal source of refinement can be found within the third type of “Sar”. As Rav Hirsch explains so eloquently, “Applying this concept in the social sense… the true nobility in a people would be those that set the measure, the tone, for all that is becoming, noble, and moral, who have the most important moral influence in the nation, who do not seek to be the measure [and be superior above all], the pattern of the material, but “Mesurah”, the finest delicate measure for the spiritual moral.”

He explains further that this type of character is not simply an inheritance; it is only to be achieved via a high spiritual and moral degree of perfection of one’s self. Although both Avraham’s and Sarah’s names were adjusted, there is an intricate distinction between the two. The Pasuk (Ber. 17:5) describes regarding Avraham that “your name shall be Avraham”, utilizing the future tense, while the Pasuk (Ber. ) describing the changing of Sarah’s name states “Sarah is her name”, in the present tense. This teaches us that Avraham would need to uphold the Bris (see Ber. 17:7 and  Rashi ibid.) in order to merit his namesake, while Sarai immediately underwent a metamorphosis into the first of our Imahot, Sarah, because of who she was and what she stood for. In the words of Rav Hirsch, “she is [at present] Sarah, the tone-setter, the regulator, who has in her heart the most delicate feelings…. the correct measure of what is right and good and beautiful, what is praiseworthy and holy, practices it herself and with the greatest delicacy applies it to others.”

This powerful quality in character of Sarah Imeinu engenders within me memories of another Sarah, my grandmother Sarah Shoshana bat Yechezkel A”H, who passed away at the beginning of this week. Everything which she was involved in had been graced by her beauty and elegance. She sincerely internalized the message which Sarah Imeinu lived by, and followed in her footsteps. In addition to her impeccable character, she dedicated her life to the support of Torah and a variety of other Jewish organizations, and as such she made a constant Kiddush Hashem and was held in high esteem by all who knew her. I pray to Hashem that all of Klal Yisrael be given “Siyata d’Shmaya” (Divine assistance) to follow in her illustrious path, as well as the direction set forth by Sarah Imeinu at the very foundation of our holy people. Through this may we have the Zechus to see the building of the Beis HaMikdash and Tchiat HaMeitim b’MiHeirah b’Yameinu.

Have an elegant Shabbos.


Categorized under: 1: Parshat Shavua > Lech Lecha