Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone
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‘Cleared for publication’: The power of a name

Just as the Divine Name is a revelation, the names of those who make the ultimate sacrifice offer a glimpse into their worlds (Vaera)
A new plot of graves in Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Military Cemetery for soldiers killed since the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Shmuel Bar-Am, via The Times of Israel)
A new plot of graves in Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Military Cemetery for soldiers killed since the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Shmuel Bar-Am, via The Times of Israel)

“Hutar le-pirsum.” Cleared for publication.

The words that break our hearts day after day, as the news updates make their rounds among the living. A media gag order is imposed to ensure that the families of the fallen are the first to be informed of what has happened to their loved ones, and once it is lifted, the names of soldiers whose lives were taken are cleared for publication. We rush to our devices, scroll through the names, and scan for familiar faces. If there is no one we know on the list, we release an uncomfortable sigh of relief. But the relief is quickly overtaken by grief. Sure, maybe not anyone we knew directly. But many knew them. Many loved them. And their hearts and lives have just been shattered.

The experience of reading through the names has been especially poignant for me since last week, when we began reading Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, a book that opens with a striking absence of named characters. As the subjugation and enslavement of the Jewish people gets underway, we are told of an unnamed man from the house of Levi who marries an unnamed woman. She leaves her unnamed baby in the Nile under the watchful gaze of his unnamed sister. Then, the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh finds the child, takes him home, and calls him “Moshe.” Even once the redeemer-to-be grows up and ventures out into the world, he continues to interact with nameless Egyptians and nameless Hebrews. For Exodus begins with the people of Israel living stateless, enslaved, in an existence where numbers matter, and names do not.

All that takes a turn in this week’s Torah portion, Va’era. The focal point of God’s appearance to Moshe is the revelation of the four-lettered Divine Name YKVK. Like all names of God, this name represents a singular aspect of His essence. In the case of YKVK, a name the Torah states that was not even revealed to the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, it is the ability for us as a people to be intimately connected with Him. The Israelites’ redemption begins when this Divine Name is revealed to them, a name singularly representing the capacity for a divine intimate relationship with the Jewish people.

Upon being bestowed with the YKVK name of God, with God announcing the people’s chosenness and redemption, they move from a peripheral existence to one that has potential and purpose. Once God exalts His relationship with the Jewish people as manifested through His personal name, the singular personal names of the Jewish people take on their full meaning too. For every name represents the yearnings and dreams bestowed upon each individual by his or her parents, and the values and the ideals they wish for for their children to actualize through the decisions they make and the lives they lead.

As redemption begins, names become relevant and the Torah immediately begins to call out the Israelites’ human names: “These are the heads of their father’s houses: …” (Exodus 6:14).

The anonymity of the opening stories of Sefer Shemot reflects the experience of slavery, a denial not only of the physical accommodations needed to lead a reasonable life, but of the dignity of individuality, upon which personal being, family, and community are built. But the story of the redemption begins with unleashing the energy represented in the name: the naming of Moshe, the naming of God, and immediately afterwards the genealogy of the Jewish people — in other words, our own naming. It is our names that give us aspirational character, individuality, and a story. To be someone to yourself, and to everyone around you.

One can see in the lists of names released by the Israel Defense Forces the full gamut of Jewish communities — first names and family names with origins in modern Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, Amharic, Russian, English, Ladino, and other languages spoken in the lands from which our people regathered. With a name and a face, we can begin to conjure up an image of who the person was, the life her or she led, and the story left behind.

Just as discovery of the Divine Name is itself a form of revelation, the release of the names of the fallen opens up to us the inner worlds of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we may live. Like the name YKVK brings God a little closer, reading the fallen names allows them to be revealed to us once more. It takes them out of their uniformed headshots into the plainclothes lives they led, with families and professions and hobbies and all that makes us who we are. It brings the fallen nearer, making them a little more real and making the loss all the more profound.

And just as we call upon the name of God, we call out these human names. We continue to recite the names of the hostages and the names of the wounded in our prayers, not losing sight of the individual people who make up our collective anguish. While for now, in the middle of the war, we lack the means to fully redeem our fallen brethren by ensuring that their legacy lives on, we can at least begin the process and perform the partial redemption of remembering their names and stories, as we, alongside their loved ones their communities, memorialize who each one was, and carry their names onwards.

This week’s parsha is dedicated in memory of two of the IDF heroes who fell in battle this week protecting our people and our land: Sergeant First Class David Schwartz z”l, beloved alumnus of Ohr Torah Stone’s Derech Avot high school, and Sergeant First Class Elkana Newlander z”l, son of longtime Ohr Torah Ariel educator Rabbi Avri Newlander. Our hearts go out to Rav Avri and Naava Newlander and their entire family as they grieve this inconsolable loss. We extend our deepest condolences to David’s wife Meital Gitler (Midreshet Lindenbaum ’17); his parents Yair and Sarah; his sister Shira Meirman (Katz-Oriya ’08) and her husband Ehud (Straus-Amiel shlichim in Toronto); his brothers Yisrael; Shai and Yael; Yosef (Derech Avot ’21) and Yudi (Derech Avot ’24). May David and Elkana’s memory and the memory of all our fallen soldiers be a blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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