The closing lines of Parshat Beresheet form a preamble of sorts to the events of the Flood in Parshat Noach: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” (Gen. 6:4) These men of renown are called, in Hebrew, “Anshe shem,” literally men of the name. And in the very next verse, God comes to realize that human beings seem to lack the ability to live peacefully together–they engage in violence, they cannot control their sexuality, they cannot respect each other’s property. So God regrets having created humans, and decides to start over with Noah and his family.

It is worth lingering over this term “anshe shem,” men of renown or men of the name. Because the word “shem” will recur many times through Parshat Noach. Most significantly, it is the name of one of Noah’s sons: Shem, who becomes the ancestor of Abraham and ultimately the Israelites. It also constitutes a key word in the Tower of Babel story which ends Parshat Noach: “They said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.'” (Gen. 11:4) “V’na’aseh lanu shem,” “and we will make a name for ourselves”–this seems to be a key to why God ultimately confuses their languages and disperses them.

The centrality of the word “shem” causes us to ask: What’s in a name? What does the parsha suggest to us about what names are, what problems they cause or solve, what their power might be?

Names are fascinating. Our parents give us names, and in doing so may have many motivations: honoring a relative, articulating an aspiration for their child, making a cultural statement. When Natalie and I named our sons, we chose middle names to honor relatives. But we chose Jonah’s and Micah’s first names because we wanted them to have names that were the same in Hebrew and English, and, should they ever move to Israel, would be contemporary enough that they would feel comfortable. Thus the choices we made in their names reflected not only our hopes and dreams, but also a larger geopolitical reality of the Jewish people today, in the Diaspora, in America, and in Israel.

But we are not only called by the names our parents give us. We may adopt new names. We may have nicknames, given to us by friends or family. We may have very special names for those with whom we are most intimate. And each of these names expresses something–a relationship and our place in the world vis-a-vis the person who calls us.

The “anshe shem,” the men of renown who lived before the Flood, seem to be powerful men–whose names were known because of their physical abilities. They seem to have inspired fear and awe, and they commanded respect on that basis. In other words, they were something like warlords or mafia dons. They ruled by strength and intimidation, by the threat of violence. And as we know, that is no way for the world to flourish. That is, as God shows, a recipe for its desruction.

The generation of Babel, on the other hand, wanted to make a name for their whole generation. A normative reading of the story yields the notion that within that generation there was no room for individual names. There is a hive mentality, an overwhelming collectivism at play. And this too, is a recipe for doom.

The challenge, then, is to make room for names, to make room for Shem. It is the build a world in which people can be called by their names–the names that make them unique, but which simultaneously make them equal with all others, for everyone else has a name too. Likewise, it is to make room for the possibility that names can change, as we will see in the case of Abraham and Sarah: that names are not idols, they are not static, but are ultimately an expression of our deepest selves.

Shabbat shalom.

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