Torah Portion: Miketz
Book of Genesis
December 30, 2017
During one of the many summers I worked on the staff of Camp Solomon Schechter in Tumwater, WA, I had a ten-year old camper from a small town in Montana introduce himself to me. He approached me with a gleam in his eye and said, “My name is Chris but you can call me Hayim!” I responded by saying, “My name is Howard but you can call me Tzvi.”
When I was born it was not fashionable in America (or Canada, for that matter) to give a Jewish child a Jewish name for public use. In the private confines of the home or synagogue Jews have their Hebrew/Yiddish name (mine being Tzvi Hershel, named after my great grandfather on my mother’s side). Having spent my formative years in the public school systems of Spokane and Seattle, my school friends knew me as “Howard” or “Howie.” Following the State of Israel’s remarkable victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, being Jewish-inside or outside Israel-became a symbol of strength rather than weakness. The Jew was now a victor rather than victim. When my kids were born in the 1970’s, Jews worldwide were far less fearful of outwardly professing their Jewish identity. We blessed our children with only one name-Ronit, Yael, and Jacob. Today Jews are an accepted part of the multi-cultural mosaic of North America. It is no surprise my grandchildren’s names are Noah, Penina, Tamar, Gabriel, Shai, Eden, Emmitt, Asher, and Ezra.
Thousands of years ago, when Joseph son of Jacob rose from a lowly servant in Egypt to the Pharaoh’s vizier (2nd in command), Pharaoh made certain Joseph was accepted by the Egyptian people by giving him an Egyptian name-Zaphenat Pa’neach. Like the Jewish communities of Canada and the United States prior to 1967, the ancient Egyptians were not ready to accept Jews in positions of high authority and Jews were not willing to press the issue.
As the Chinese immigrate to Canada, the first thing they do is take on an “English” first name. Chinese first names can be challenging for an Anglo Saxon to pronounce. A more likely reason for the change in name is the new Chinese immigrant’s uneasiness in this new country, not to mention the uneasiness of the Canadian citizenry toward the new immigrants. The situation is mitigated, in part, by taking names familiar to the indigenous population. A generation from now it will be interesting to see if the Chinese, like the Jews, revert back to their ancestral names as they become an integral part of the mosaic of Canadian life.
From biblical times to this day, the most difficult instinct for humanity to overcome is the initial distrust of the stranger among us. As Jews, the Torah repeatedly reminds us to show care and concern for the newcomer for “We were strangers in the land of Egypt”, and we know all too well what that was like!
Rabbi Howard Siegel