New Year, New Name?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, drawing on teachings of Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Sheila Weinberg, and, 9/2/2003

We recite for the High Holy Days — "Tshuvah, tfilah, & tzedakah will avert the evil of the decree." (Self-transformation, prayer, & upright service to the poor.) But the passage comes from a passage in Talmud, which actually lists these three AND A FOURTH: "changing one's name." (The rabbis dropped this from the liturgy for fear that people might think they could do this and ignore the other three.)

The tradition of changing one's name in time of dire illness stems from this, or — more likely!! — the other way around. This may strike people as superstitious, but it is clear that at a deep level a name change betokens an identity change. (E.g. changing names on marriage, Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, something-or-other Green to David Ben Gurion, Avram to Avraham, etc etc.) So a drash on this tradition fits beautifully for Rosh Hashanah and speaks a deep truth.

According to the Kabbalists, God's Own Name changes/ is renewed in the four days between Yom Kippur & Sukkot (one letter each day).

Since for many of us a serious identity change is blocked by the resistance of our friends and community, on Rosh Hashanah this process can be strengthened thus:

1. Ask people to spend some time in silence, alone, perhaps walking meditatively, contemplating their names. Do they speak a true identity? For a day, a year, a lifetime, should they be changed? Or if they are deeply true, should they be clearly affirmed?

2. The people regather in groups of three. Each explains his/her thoughts, and explores with the other two what a more truthful name might be, or how to affirm the old one. Each works out with the two others what a new name (English or Hebrew) or a reaffirmed old one might be.

3. The small groups reconnect into one large circle.

4. Each person announces what name (new or old) s/he wishes to be called. Three time the whole circle calls out this new name.

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