My father, Julius Siegel, “Avi Umori” – my father, my teacher – was a general practitioner physician in northern Virginia for more than 50 years. Medical terms, phrases, and names were part of my growing up.
One name keeps popping up in my memory, “Charlie Hofnagel”. I loved the sound of the name. Later on, I discovered that he was a famous surgeon who practiced in Washington, and was world renowned for developing the Hofnagel valve, nothing short of a cosmic breakthrough for subsequent heart surgeons.
Later on I began to wonder about Down syndrome (John L. H. Down, 1828-1896), Alzheimer’s (Alois Alzheimer, 1864-1915), and as all people with diabetes know, the islets of Langerhans (Paul Langerhans, 1839-1915).
Subsequently, I became curious about things or phenomena that became nicknames or attached to names in a person’s lifetime or afterwards. The list expanded greatly. Beginning with sports: Every Canadian knows The Great One (Wayne Gretzky), The Greatest (self-named by Muhammed Ali), Stan the Man (Musial), Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain, the Iron Man (Lou Gehrig), and for older people, my grandmother in particular, the wrestler Gorgeous George (George Raymond Wagner, 1915-1963).
How great a man was Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi that throughout the Talmud if the name “Rabbi” stands alone, the student knows it refers to that one individual alone?
And at the far other end of the spectrum, rulers such as Catherine and Peter were called “the Great” even though they may have been the murderers of vast numbers of their subjects.
Again — since my mind works associatively — diametrically away from the monsters, I considered how this name issue applied to my own self. Some relatives called me “Danny Mike” when I was very young. Later on, since my mother, Edythe Siegel, “Eemi, Morati” – my mother, my teacher – was so well respected in the Arlington Jewish community, I was known as “Edythe Siegel’s son”, at least until my reputation grew in United Synagogue Youth, and she became used to being, “Danny
Finally, after many summers in Israel, I began to ask my friends to call me by my Hebrew name, “Ya’akov”. (I subsequently found out the source of this “disjoint” from my English name because my father’s mother, Tzirel Dvorah – Zichrona Livracha – declared that since my father was “Yitzchak” and my older brother was “Avraham”, she wanted to round it out with an Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov among her descendants.)
I forgot to mention that over the years I have discovered many Danny Siegels. My friend Arnie Draiman often scans the Internet for the name, and, among others, discovered an award-winning bartender, and a high school baseball star, besides a half-dozen others I might remember. This has become a humbling reminder when, occasionally, I am introduced to someone who then asks,”The Danny Siegel?”
This brings us — after the overlong ruminations above — to an important Midrash from Exodus Rabbah (1:26) that states that Moses in fact had many names. (Curiously, the Torah does not record what his own parents Yocheved and Amram named him.)
The fact is, the one he is always known by is the name Pharaoh’s daughter gave him. She is, after all, the one who saved his life and set in motion the rest of Jewish history.
I believe the lesson is, for what do we want to be remembered by others? I do not mean “immortalized” for generations or centuries. My thought is, what will others associate with us when they think of us, now, today, 5-10 years from now, whenever? And my point is, it doesn’t
have to be anything big. It could be that we were there for a wedding, a funeral, a shiva. Or that the other recalls that we changed our overloaded schedule to drive them to the emergency room when they were in pain or to dialysis or chemotherapy.
We do not have to think in terms of being immortalized. I am certain Pharaoh’s daughter thought she was only saving a baby and did not think of the implications millennia into the future.
So, too, ourselves, when we perform some act of Tzedakah or Gemillut Chassadim for its own sake. It is my sense that built into the Mitzvah-act, is that blessed possibility that we unknowingly may be part of another person’s life. And for that, we ought to say, “Dayyenu” – that is enough, perhaps even more than enough.