The middle book of the Torah is called Exodus in English and Shemot (Names) in Hebrew. Names play a crucial role in Torah language and thought. When God gives Adam responsibility for keeping the earth safe, Adam’s first responsibility is to name the creatures of the world, and in that way, connect with them. Know their names and not their skills.
Avram and Sarai have their names changed to Avraham and Sarah after their encounter with God. Jacob becomes Yisrael, God Wrestler. Names matter as the windows to identity.
Labels like names matter as well. Please remember this: When someone offers you their name, they offer their total identity. But when we label them, we limit their identity. Many labels are hurtful. For example: handicapped – a play on “cap in hand,” a beggar; deaf and dumb – an insult that equates hearing impairment with lack of intelligence. So many labels are ways to diminish another person with a word. Unlike a name which can carry with it pride of self, a label is often put upon a person.
Next time, before you label someone, try to use the name they themselves chose, for themselves, not a label about what is lacking or even a description of what they have to offer. Do not assign a label to a person but rather ask “How shall I speak of you?” Know someone by the name they choose and offer to you with pride – not by what they can or cannot do. Speak not of their skills or their lack of skills, but rather know the name they choose. Names and words matter. Choose them carefully. Remember: Label cans, not people.
Rabbi Daniel T. Grossman has led Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for 25 years. He is a graduate of Temple University, Hebrew University, Mirkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem and the Reconstructionist Rabbincal College. Rabbi Grossman also works in the field of Jewish Special Education and co-wrote and participated in the video “Someone is Listening,” the story of a young deaf Jew and his search for fulfillment as a Jewish adult. Rabbi Grossman is also fluent in several sign languages.