I hate Maya Angelou.
Okay, hate is probably a strong word, but I lost faith in her sometime back in my youth when I saw this performance on Sesame Street. I appreciate the message that we should take pride in who we are, but how dare the former Marguerite Anne Johnson sing a song about how proud she is that her name is Maya and she’s not going to change it. She already changed it! If this was a Sesame Street lesson in irony, then fine, but instead it came across to me as a lesson in hypocrisy. Names are important. There’s nothing wrong with changing one’s name, and in fact, that can be an incredibly important and powerful way of affirming identity. Marguerite-cum-Maya should understand that better than most. I’d argue the Torah understands that even better.
This week’s Torah Portion (Lech L’cha) has the Bible’s first major name-change, when the geriatric Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. I think we tend to forget how far into their story this name change happens. Before re-reading the parasha this week, I had it in my head that they change their names when they set out from Ur to Canaan. Not so. They’ve both had quite a few of their adventures — particularly their failures — before they get their new names.
Regrets? They had a few. Abram lies about his relationship with Sarai to try to save his neck in Egypt, only to have the mess blow up in his face. Sarai more or less forces her handmaiden Hagar on her husband to produce an heir, and then gets all fatal attraction on her once baby Ishmael is born. And let’s not forget Abram’s inability to live peacefully with his nephew Lot. (When Lot and Abram parted ways, Lot ended up as a POW before landing in Sodom, which didn’t work out so great for him either.)
But they also learned from their mistakes and grew as individuals. Abram redeemed Lot from captivity during that POW incident, and helped make peace among the warring factions. And I’m sure Sarai did as well, but one of the inadequacies of ancient texts is the way they sometimes just forget to tell us about what’s going on with the women.
Regardless, we’re told that the addition of the Hebrew letter ה to their names signifies their closer connection to God. Their new names reflected their new identities, their new way of understanding themselves and their new way of interacting with their communities and the rest of the world.
We see this elsewhere in the Bible - Jacob becomes Israel, Naomi becomes Mara, etc. But it works differently in different cases. If you talk to most people, including those who are really familiar with the Book of Ruth, about “Mara,” you’ll likely be met with blank stares. And while there are times when we refer to Jacob as Israel in our liturgy and popular understanding, it’s rare. In most cases, to most of us, when we think of that person, we call him Jacob.
So what makes me yell Fuck Yeah! about this portion? I love that the Bible allows for multiple ways of understanding names and changing identities. New names can be permanent, so much so that we (intentionally or not) read them back onto the history that happened prior to those names. But sometimes new names reflect one aspect of ourselves, and serve a purpose sometimes without canceling or negating our other names. That’s okay too.
I often think about the Bible as a pre-modern post-modern document. For a text that’s thousand of years old, it’s pretty adept as holding both “n and not-n” ideas simultaneously. For some, that can be confounding or upsetting, but personally, I find that empowering. Fuck yeah.