There is a lot of ‘name calling’ in the first portion of the Torah, but I mean it in a good way. The Torah relates that G-d called His creations by name, such as; Ohr – light, Laila – night, Yam – ocean, Aretz – land, and of course Adam – man. The Torah explains that man was called Adam because he was physically fashioned from the Adamah – earth.
The Medrash relates that when G-d wished to create man, out of humility, G-d discussed it first with the angels. One of the qualities that man has over angels is the ability to discern the essence of the being of a creature and naming it in Lashon Hakodesh – Hebrew. When doing so, Adam captured the fundamental nature of the particular being, and the Torah attests that whatever Adam named indeed became their name.
Many of the names of people born in the generations following Adam were named through foresight of their nature or ability. For example, when Noach was born, his parents named him Noach which is rooted in the word Yenachmanu – he will bring us relief, because Noach eventually invented of the plow which brought relief to workers in the fields, which until then had to be done with their hands.
The Torah relates that Noach had three sons, Shem, Cham and Yefes. I was intrigued by the name of Noach’s son Shem, for the translation of Shem is name, and so, Noach named his son, name.
My guess is that Noach was hoping that Shem would make a name for himself. In fact, Noach was right, Shem made a name for himself for he was a righteous and spiritual person.
In fact, Shem’s name, which is the root of Semites is mentioned quite often by those who detest us and we call them anti-Semites.
After the flood, Noach offered sacrifices to G-d and Shem was selected to offer them. Shem was also the one who protected his father Noach’s dignity when it was compromised after Cham had violated his father Noach.
The Torah relates that Noach bestowed G-d’s name upon Shem and the Medrash relates that the name of G-d was channeled onto Shem’s descendant, Avraham, ten generations later.
Shem elevated himself to the position of a High Priest to G-d and is referred to in the Torah as Malki Tzedek the King of Shalem. In fact, the name of the holy city of Jerusalem is a combination of the words Yerah and Shalem. Thus, YeruShalem always contains an association with Shem.
Shem studied and taught Torah, (even before it was given), and he established a Yeshiva with his great grandson Aiver. He taught Torah and tradition to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaacov. It can be noticed that Shem lived for a very long time.
When our matriarch Rivka was pregnant and passed Shem’s house of study, the baby began kicking as if it wanted to get out, and when she passed a place of idol or pagan worship the baby also kicked indicating that it wished to emerge. Rivka was confused and approached Shem for an explanation. Shem with his prophetic abilities was able to advise Rivka that she was in fact carrying twins. One, Yaacov, was righteous, while his brother Aisav was wicked. Already in utero the divergent personalities of the two brothers was apparent.
The Torah relates that not everyone was successful with making a name for themselves. At the end of the portion of Beraishis society was on a moral decline and the Torah relates that there were demon like people who trapped and snatched women – they are called Anshai HaShem – people of the name. The name they chose was one of decadence and idolatry and they vanished in the great flood.
Similarly, 340 years after the flood (the Gematria – numerical value of Shem) people began building the Tower of Babel with intent to challenge G-d. The Torah tells us that these people wanted to make a Shem – a name – for themselves. G-d disrupted their plans by making them not understand one another by causing each person to speak a different language. Until then, Hebrew was the universally spoken language. Thus the name these people wished to set for themselves didn’t endure.
Shem, our forbearer, whose name we carry, lives on as Noach had hoped. Unfortunately, at times it takes the form of anti-Semitism – which is rooted in people’s discontent of facing a people who are identified as G-d’s nation and the devotees to G-d and His Torah.
When I was sharing some of these ideas with our friends Lew and Jamie Abrams, Jamie pointed out that we always refer to G-d as HaShem – The Name.
We, G-d’s nation, are continually making an honorable name for ourselves by faithfully following the ways of Hashem!