Ki Tetzei: Our Names, Our Heritage

As a rabbi, one of my favorite phone calls to receive is from expectant parents who are in search of Hebrew names for their future child. Before even suggesting any potential names, I always preface my response with an explanation of how important names are to us as Jewish people. Our name is our legacy. It is not only our identifying label in the community, but it is also how we will be remembered.

“Crown of a Good Name” by Artist Mordechai Rosenstei

When you go up to the Torah for an aliyah, you are beckoned before the minyan and before God with your moniker including your parents’ names. You are not receiving this kavod (honor) alone, but rather with your entire heritage. In many lifecycle events, our Hebrew name is invoked and thereby our heritage is invoked as well. For our name is more than mere nomenclature, a classifying label – it is who we are, what we stand for, and from where we have come.

In Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our Sages, R. Shimon taught: “There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name exceeds them all.” To become a king or a priest, one must be born into this position. However, to achieve the crown of Torah, one must have a quick mind and a sound memory. One must be willing to learn and to grow. Thus, the crown of a good name transcends them all, for it is open to all.

Parashat Ki Tetze ends with the famous commandment to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors and to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Timche et-zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim. Lo Tishkach. We must at the same time remember what the Amalekites did to our ancestors and also blot out their name. As the commentary in the Etz Hayim translation explains, we are not being commanded here to eradicate all recollection of the Amalekites. Indeed, we are commanded to remember forever what the Amalekites did. We must both remember what they did as well as erase their name. That, the Torah seems to be teaching us, is the ultimate revenge – to eliminate or wipe out a name.

On Purim, when we hear the name of Haman, the descendent of Amalek, read from the Megillah, we literally drown out the name. So too, when we utter the name of Hitler, arguably another descendent of Amalek, we make sure to add the words “yimach shmo,” that his name should be erased. But these stand as negatives; ways to blot out the name of evil individuals. If we look back only a few verses before the mitzvah to eradicate the name of Amalek, we learn of another mitzvah concerning names; but in this instance, it is a positive commandment. It is to carry on the name of an individual – the man who dies childless.

Levirate marriage or yibum is the commandment stating that the brother of a childless husband is obligated to marry his widowed sister-in-law and the first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother that his name should not be blotted out in Israel. Thus, the underlying intention of this mitzvah is that a man’s name should not disappear forever if he dies leaving no children to carry on his name. His legacy will be assured. We learn in the Book of Ruth, when Ruth’s relative Boaz marries the widower Naomi, that yibum is considered the ultimate in loving-kindness.

There is simply no better way to honor ones memory than by perpetuating ones name. Inherent in a person’s name are all of their achievements, their beliefs, and their ethical creed. Indeed, the memory of our loved ones is bound up in their name. When we remember their name, we maintain an enduring nearness to their neshama, to their soul.

On Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – throughout the Jewish community, on college campuses, in Jewish day schools, and in synagogues, the names of all six million Jews who perished during the Shoah are read to show respect to the dead by helping their names live on. Pronouncing these names, the names of those whose lives were cut short during the darkest time in our people’s history, is not only one of the greatest way we can carry on their legacy, but also the greatest way we can ensure that we remember what Amalek did to us and blot out their name. Zakhor, remembrance, can be for both good and evil. In remembering the good, we too, erase the evil.

We understand that while our body will eventually cease to function, our name will continue on. As a community, we have the mitzvah to perpetuate the name, the legacy, of others by carrying their name forward throughout the generations. Francis Bacon, the famous English essayist, lawyer, philosopher, and statesman, once said: “I bequeath my soul to God… My body to be buried obscurely. For my name and memory, I leave it to men’s charitable speeches, and to foreign nations, and the next age.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Getting Chai on ‘Weeds’ – Jewish Themes Galore on the Showtime Hit Series

Fans of the long-running Showtime series “Weeds” know that writer and creator Jenji Kohan is not afraid to pepper the show with Jewish themes. While the show, now in its final season, has changed its flavor over the years and gained some critics, many devotees still enjoy the story about a marijuana-selling widowed mother from the suburbs and her family’s experiences.

Throughout the different webs of relationships, Kohan, who is Jewish, has managed to bring esoteric Jewish concepts into the series, including in a recent episode that featured ruminations on the power and purpose of immersing in the mikvah. Perhaps because the show is on the subscription-based Showtime network, its Jewish essence hasn’t been widely covered, but Kohan, who considered attending rabbinical seminary, has taken on some controversial Jewish subjects in the past eight seasons. Here are the top Jewish references:

* Unveiling (Season 1, Episode 8): It’s likely that many viewers thought this was a funeral service at the cemetery, but Jewish fans recognized the ritual as the unveiling of Judah Botwin’s tombstone. Once the family returns from the cemetery, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) explains her day to the Drug Enforcement Agency agent who becomes her boyfriend: “It’s where they unveil the gravestone. It’s a Jewish thing. I know you’re thinking, ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ I come from Welsh stock … I’m not Jewish. My husband. He’s dead now. He was Jewish.”

Showtime

The episode also tackles the controversial topic of Jewish lineage when the Orthodox rabbi tells the Botwin boys, Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould), that they are not legitimately Jewish because their mother isn’t Jewish and they had never converted to Judaism. The young Shane is hurt by the news and takes out his aggression on his wrestling opponent, whose foot he bites after yelling “Sh’ma Yisrael!”

* Rabbinical School (Season 2): Nancy’s out-of-work brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) decides the best way to keep from returning to military service will be to become a rabbi. He enrolls in the fictional Hamidrash L’Torah rabbinical school, where he falls in loves with the dean, the attractive Israeli Yael Hoffman (Meital Dohan). While much of the ongoing rabbinical school experience is silly, some rather serious issues are discussed, including Andy’s theological convictions, which come up while he is writing his admissions essay.

* Euthanasia (Season 4, Episodes 2 and 3): The Botwins leave the Agrestic/Majestic community after it burns and relocate to the home of Nancy’s father-in-law. There they find Lenny Botwin (Albert Brooks) and his mother, Bubbie (Jo Farkas), who is hooked up to a ventilator. The Auschwitz survivor regains consciousness and asks Lenny to kill her. The Botwin men discuss the wisdom and ethics of euthanizing Bubbie, but in the end Lenny agrees to have Nancy kill Bubbie.

* Sitting Shiva (Season 4, Episode 4): While shiva is one of the most well-known Jewish rituals, not many television shows have accurately portrayed it. This episode focuses entirely on the Botwin family sitting shiva for Bubbie at son Lenny’s insistence. Several laws and customs of shiva are mentioned during the episode, including the understanding that family members should not cook for themselves. A shiva candle is lit, and friends and neighbors come to pay their respect.

* Levirate Marriage (Ongoing): While Andy mentions the Jewish concept of a Levirate marriage to his sister-in-law Nancy at one point in the show’s history, the theme is an ongoing one. The Torah dictates that an unmarried man must marry his brother’s widow, but that applies only if the widow has not had children. So even if the law would not apply in Nancy and Andy’s case — both because she already has children and she is not Jewish — the constant and sometimes awkward attraction between them seems continually to remind the viewer of Andy’s enjoyment and frustration over the hunt.

* Bris (Season 5, Episode 8): Nancy gives birth to Tijuana Mayor and cartel leader Esteban Reyes’ baby boy, but the father (Demian Bichir) refuses to sign the birth certificate for fear of its effect on his political career. Andy signs the birth certificate as the boy’s father and insists on a brit for the baby, whom he promises to raise proudly as his Jewish son. At the brit, baby Stevie is given the Hebrew name Avi Melech (son of a king).

Showtime

* Mikvah (Season 8, Episode 5): At the end of this episode, Rabbi David Bloom (David Julian Hirsh), the rabbi/hospital chaplain, finally confronts Nancy, who has been secretly swimming in his backyard swimming pool. This is the same rabbi who talks theology with Andy at the hospital when he is concerned about Nancy’s well-being after she is shot in the head at the end of the previous season. When Nancy explains that swimming in the pool feels like a sort of rebirth for her, the rabbi explains the Jewish concept of tevillah (immersion in a mikvah). This is likely the most spiritual and New Age definition of the mikvah ritual that has ever been offered on television.

Kohan has said that she’s not afraid to take on inherently Jewish concepts on the show no matter how esoteric they may be. For the many Jewish fans of “Weeds,” there have been many instances of surprise and pride over the years after unpredicted mentions of a Jewish ritual or theme. As the final season comes to a close, there may just be more Jewish references to come.

UPDATE: I just received word that the show filmed scenes for an episode at Adat Ari El synagogue in Valley Village, California last week. They used the historic chapel for one of the scenes. I’m thinking this can mean a Nancy-Andy or a Jill-Andy wedding… We shall see!

Originally published at JTA.org and cross-posted to the PopJewish.com blog.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller