By Dr. Irwin Gelman
Things happen less by coincidence than you think.
My first wife and I were visiting my parents right after our marriage, well before we contemplated having children. My parents had a large Torah volume on their coffee table, and I, in a move of spontaneity, opened it to a random page. There before us was the parsha, the weekly reading, of Pinchas, in the section where G-d commands the Israelites to take a census, counting every male of 20 years of age and older, לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם, “according to their ancestral house”. What followed in this parsha was a long list of male clan leader names grouped by tribe, their lineage, and their census populations.
Some of the names were familiar, as we knew modern-day Israelis who were Avirams or Shauls or Peretz’s. That led to a whole host of speculations that seemed quite easy to accept: “I can imagine our first son being named Aviram or Peretz?” It was only after we read further into the parsha did things take an interesting turn. “Hey, let’s name him Lachli’el or Shutalach or Shefufam. Do you think this will cause a problem in school: ‘Hey Shefufam, pass the ball’?” We kept going back to the text to find more obscure names, only to be interrupted by my father walking in, and after he sized up the evidence, asking, “Are you guys pregnant?” We all laughed, nervously for us because we had to be convincing in our denial. We then described our happenstance discovery of all those funny-sounding names of our ancestors, how, we kept turning those names into a joke, when my father broke in to say, “You know, one of those names was probably your great, great, great, great grandfather’s great, great, great grandfather; those are your kin.”
He was right.
He made me understand that the reason the Torah went to the trouble of listing all those names in boring repetition was not just for the generation of Jews still wandering in the Sinai, but for the hundreds of generations to come. This was our own “Finding your Roots” moment, as was made famous in the PBS series hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In this show, there is an existentialism shared with audience members when guests are shown their ancestors’ names, who they were, where they came from, what they went through to make it to America. All of us have roots, all of us have ancestors, yet not all of us know who they are, not all of us can say their names.
This concept, the ability to say “I am the descendant of so-and-so”, is very powerful. The ability to say a person’s name gives them a meaning in your life; it gives them a new life.
As Jews, we say these names out loud when we remember them at their yahrzeit, the yearly markings of their passing, so that we can honor them with the Kaddish prayer. If they are ill, we say their names before saying a mi’sheberach prayer for healing. We announce their names at a brit, a circumcision, or at a shalom bat celebration for newborn girls. We revel in their names at Bar- or Bat-Mitzvot when they are called up to the Torah for the first time as Jewish adults. And importantly, as Jews, our names are always said in the context of our parents and our lineage.
I reflect on this memory because much of the current awakening in our society to racial injustice is centered on the power of names. Protestors at rallies triggered by the murder of George Floyd carry signs bearing the names of so many others who befell the same fate. This rallying cry of “Say their names” validates each and every life of these victims: Ahmaud Abery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin. The list is vast. Unlike many of their ancestors who were enslaved in our country and who were only known in the censuses of their time for their gender and age, we say and we remember the names of current-day victims of racism so that all of our descendants will know their lives.
Every year on September 11th, at Ground Zero where the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan, relatives read nearly 3,000 names of those who perished on that infamous day in 2001. Each name is a remembrance, a life.
Anyone who has visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has seen an underground rotunda of bookshelves containing binders with millions of names of those who perished. Each page is a person, each page is a life.
More than the DNA we share, our names and our lineages tell us a lot about what sacrifices were made for us to be able enjoy the comforts of our lives and societies. Funny as these may sound at first, it warms my heart to think that great grandpa Yachtziel would be proud to have served as my ancestor.
Dr. Irwin Gelman is the Director of Research Integration at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is also the Cantor at Congregation Beth Abraham and serves as Vice President of the Jewish Community Center Board of Directors.