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What's in a name?

Friday, 30 October, 2020 - 2:24 pm

 The first father of the Jewish people, Abraham, is introduced in the Torah by the name Avram.  Toward the end of this week’s Parsha, at the time Hashem told him to circumcise himself at the age of 99, Hashem changed his name to Avraham.  We refer to him only as Avraham, not Avram, as Hashem Himself said: “Your name shall not be called Avram, only Avraham shall be your name.”  The Torah is extremely judicious with every word.  Every verse and every story in the Torah – translated as life-teaching – is a lesson for us in our daily lives.  As the saying goes: The Torah is not a story book.  So why does the Torah tell us this story about Avram’s name being changed to Avraham?  A more fundamental question is, why did Hashem change his name in the first place?  


By the way, there are many who learned it that way in Hebrew school, as a story, and it often seems somewhat archaic.  If you want to get a deeper understanding of the meaning and lessons of these stories, please join my upcoming JLI course that gives beautiful explanations of the real meaning of the Torah’s most iconic stories.  See here for more information. 

I’m going to approach the answer on two levels -  the “simple” meaning based on the reading of the text, and the Kabbalah behind it.  The reason given in the text is that the word Avraham is an acronym for “Av Hamon” which means “father of many nations.”  Rashi points out that Avram means father of Aram, the place he came from.  Until now, he was the father of Aram, but now his impact grew so that he influenced many nations.  Kabbalah tells us that “Avram”, meaning literally “exalted father,” refers to the supernal wisdom of Hashem in the highest spiritual world.  “Av” – meaning father – refers to the very first manifestation of Hashem’s light to create the worlds, and that is “Chochma” wisdom.  It is too complicated to go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that before the circumcision (Bris) Avram was connected spiritually to Hashem’s supernal wisdom, which is such a high spiritual level that it is too removed from the world to be accessible to us.  With the Bris, Avraham’s holiness was “lowered” into the world, and that was when he and his wife Sarah truly began impacting the inhabitants of the many nations with whom they came in contact.  As our Sages taught that they welcomed even people who worshipped the dust on their feet, and taught them the faith in the one G-d.


Let’s take a look at this: At this stage in his life, after he had reached such great spiritual heights, Avram – connected to the highest spiritual manifestation of Hashem’s light gets thrust into Avraham – dealing with the lowest spiritual levels?  Even being involved with people so far removed from supernal wisdom (or any wisdom for that matter) that they consider the dust on their feet a deity?  As always, Chassidus sheds light on the subject, also teaching us a powerful lesson that I think is especially relevant to or times. 


Come along with me on this short Kabbalistic journey.  For holiness to permeate the lowest levels of the world, a manifestation of G-d’s light, no matter how high, even supernal wisdom, is not sufficient.  Manifestations of light, being manifestations, are limited.  To penetrate and transform the deep darkness of idol worship and similar great departures from Hashem’s will, there needs to be a power that is unlimited and infinite.  I know these are concepts that need a lot more explanation, and I am not doing service to the definitions of light, limit, manifestation, etc.  But I hope you can get the point I am making.  Avraham’s reaching down to the lowest spiritual levels of the world did not lower his holiness or spirituality.  On the contrary, Hashem gave him a new, infinite power, greater even than Supernal Wisdom – the highest manifestation of Divine revelation in the worlds, which was the only way to penetrate that darkness.  So in fact, by reaching down, Avraham’s holiness was elevated.


Many of us attempt to attain spiritual growth, and we try to reach higher.  There are so many movements today that cater to the hunger in the world for meaning and spiritual ecstasy.  Avraham’s story teaches us that it is not by running away from the world that we attain true greatness.  The highest connection to Hashem happens when we transform the world itself.  This is true in our own lives, where the primary focus of our spiritual journey should be to elevate our actions – to assure that our physical and emotional drives are harnessed and used for observance of the practical Mitzvot as taught in the written and oral Torah.


And also in relation to others.  One may think that they have no time to reach out to others less learned or less involved, because this might interfere with personal spiritual growth.  In fact when we spend time and energy working with people who are not currently connected to Torah, the story of Avraham tells us, this greatly enhances our own connection to Hashem.  And. Of course, this helps hasten the coming of Moshiach.


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