Remember TV’s “Cheers,” the place where “everybody knows your name”? Less acknowledged are two prior lines in the theme song: “where you can see our troubles are all the same,” and “where people know [that] people are all the same.”
There you have it: the “Cheers” version of our time. We are bereft of natural communities that are like extended families (where, as Robert Frost says, “they have to take you in”). Without such solace, our problems “drive us to drink” (so to speak), to places where we feel better because we see that “our troubles are all the same,” that “we are all the same,” and people still know our names.
Judaism is not “Cheers,” but Judaism, too, thinks that we are ultimately all the same. Yes, God made each of us unique, but we are all descended from Adam and Eve [Maimonides on Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5]. Judaism agrees, too, that our names matter. It differs, however, by noting we have many names, and the one that counts is not the one bestowed on us at birth but the one we make for ourselves in life. We are graced with free will, says Maimonides [Laws of Repentance, 5:1] and can conscientiously choose to live so that our names are associated with Godliness.
Judaism is, therefore, less like “Cheers” and more like Socrates, for whom “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Torah is the Jewish mirror for self-examination, as are penitence and prayer. The Rabbis awakened each day to all three, hoping for a life without shame, a life with honor, a life where we do not succumb to the evil inclination, which the Talmud compared to yeast that puffs us up with our own self-importance [Berachot 17a].
“Cheers” is a cozy retreat from life, to a place where “everybody knows your name.” Judaism embraces life, as the means to earn a name worth being known by. We call that “character.”
Character is the topic of Pirkei Avot, mandatory reading for this period of “counting the days” [Sefirat HaOmer] between Passover and Shavuot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself, what am I?” [Avot 1:14]. We pursue our self-interest, but at what cost? Similarly, “He who seeks renown loses his reputation” [Avot 1:13]; the pursuit of fame and fortune is useless. Instead, we should avoid spite, profanity, envy, and arrogance [Avot 2:15; 3:15; 4:4-5, 28]. We should see the best in others [Avot 4:3]; value truth, justice, friendliness, and peace [Avot 1:15, 18], and personify humanity at its best, especially when those around us personify it at its worst [Avot 2:6].
Character forms slowly and is not changed easily. God didn’t reveal the Torah the minute the Israelites left Egypt because slaves necessarily develop the debilitating character of docility, fear, and pessimism. God risked Revelation later, at Sinai, and when Israel defaulted into Golden Calf idolatry, God waited a whole generation more before admitting them to the Promised Land.
But character can change with persistent effort over time, and that, says Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch [the third Lubavitcher Rebbe], is what Sefirat HaOmer is for: the cleansing of character. He points out that normally, for new moons and sabbatical years, calendrical counting is entrusted to the bet din, the rabbinical court that represents all of Israel. Not so the sefirah. The commandment to count the days, he says, falls on each of us individually.
The same is true of the Ten Commandments, the Rebbe continued. They are even addressed to each of us in the singular, because basic moral obligation is central to individual character. Each of us can acquire a good name, but only on our own [Avot 2:8].
What’s in a name, then? Everything! Not the name we are given, but the name we achieve, our mark of character. From Passover to Shavuot we get seven weeks of counting, seven weeks to commit ourselves to achieving “the crown of a good name,” which is better than the crown of royalty itself [Avot 4:17].
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
Shabbat Candles: 7:37 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Havdalah: 8:38 p.m.