What’s in a name? A rose by any other name may be just as sweet. But, on the other hand, if you ask for a rose, and you’re given an ugly, foul-smelling flower calling itself a rose, you’d be disappointed. Names hold our sets of expectations for things, and the same is true for people. Everyone has a name, the poet Zelda wrote, given by God, by his parents, but also given by his sins, by his enemies, by his work.
This understanding suggests a gap between a person and their name; we are often not identical to the expectations the world has of us. Sometimes we are more, sometimes we are less. What comes first? The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 10) suggests that it depends on the type of person.
“The wicked precede their name: ‘Naval was his name’, ‘Goliath was his name’, Sheva ben Bichri was his name’, but with the righteous, their name precedes them: ‘His name was Elkana’, ‘His name was Yishai’…’His name was Manoach’.”
To be righteous demands setting up a vision of the ideal to guide you, to give the “ought” primacy over the “is”.
According to this Midrash, Manoach is righteous. But chapter 13 suggests that there is an even higher ideal- to be nameless. It is clear that the nameless figures, Manoach’s wife, and the angel, are the main characters of the chapter, and that Manoach is a tag-along, a superfluous appendage to the historic events unfolding. Manoach’s wife doesn’t ask the angel for his name. When Manoach does, the angel has a strange reply: “Why do you ask for my name? It is a wonder.” Rashi explains: it is always changing. An angel’s name is defined by its mission, but for an angel, there is no gap between name and essence. It fully embodies its mission. Few people can do this; the best most of us can hope for is to be righteous, to shape ourselves by the light of our ideal name. But there are angels who walk among us, who toil in wondrous oblivion. They prefer to remain nameless.