What’s in a name?
I did not feel up to traveling for a Brit Milah this past Shabbat. It had been a particularly difficult week. The news here in Israel was devastating. From the senseless murder of Elan Ganeles, to horrible settler violence, to the police stun-grenading protesters of judicial reform — it felt like things were coming apart at the seams.
And to make matters worse for my upcoming weekend, my family wasn’t able to join me. But the waiting baby was a sibling of a Brit I had done outdoors during high COVID times, and I felt compelled to go. So, it would be a Shabbat alone in Jerusalem.
When the mother of the baby was first in contact with me, everything seemed fine. But as the week progressed, her contact dwindled — and that’s not the way I like to work. She wouldn’t answer my calls and would only respond much later, saying, “Sorry I missed you, I was sleeping.”
When Thursday arrived, the father contacted me, saying, “Something’s wrong. We’re taking my wife to the hospital.” Thankfully, she was only suffering from her first bout of Covid — how ironic! Unfortunately, the mother was still not feeling well and was unable to attend the Simcha. There’s something incomplete about the ceremony when the mother isn’t first in line for the procession. Nonetheless, I did all I could to make the event as meaningful as possible.
Most families save the name as a surprise to all in attendance. It’s an emotional moment because the baby is usually named in honor of a relative. Under normal circumstances, both the person blessing the baby and the congregation react at the same moment. But not this time. Even before he started, the blesser got emotional. It seemed odd to me, but as things progressed I forgot about it.
If I have a failing as a mohel, it’s that I’m not good at remembering the baby’s name. In fact, sometimes I need to be reminded mere moments later, when I’m reciting the prayer for healing. But I have every reason to commit them to memory. Most times, upon my return home, my children’s first question is: “What’s the baby’s name?” I usually have to work hard to remember.
In addition to my children’s interest, I have another reason to take note of the name. When I was finishing my training to become a mohel, my teacher instructed me to designate a book to keep a record of all of the babies’ names. He informed me that mohalim have been doing this for quite some time and, in some cases, these past records act as an informal census of the Jewish population before the Holocaust.
As a graduation present for becoming a mohel, one of my closest friends gave me a book inscribed with the title “Sefer Milah” to record the names. I am scrupulous about entering each of them. The problem is I almost always have to ask the parents for a reminder so I can enter it in the book. And this Shabbat Bris was no different. Even with the seeming emotion surrounding the moment, the name went in one ear and out the other. That was until the conclusion of Shabbat.
I bumped into the Sandak (the person who holds the baby during the Brit Milah) at Maariv (evening prayers) and took the liberty of sitting next to him. Just before we began to pray he asked me, “You know why they named him what they did, right?” “Honestly, I can’t even remember what they named him,” I replied. “His name is Elan,” he told me. “He was named for the boy who was murdered in the terror attack earlier this week. The person who named him landed, went immediately to the funeral and then came to the Bris.” As they began the call for prayer, it was my time to choke up.
It seems no accident that these events occurred just before the holiday of Purim. As is well known, Esther’s name means “hidden” and God’s name does not appear in the Megillah at all. Why should this be? I believe it’s because sometimes it’s harder to see God’s hand in the world and it’s our job to uncover the hints of His presence.
There are weeks like this last one that seem to be a hopeless spiral of chaos. God seems nowhere to be found. But then there are events like this Bris that show us that God is still close and will never disappear so long as the Jewish people continue to sanctify His name.
May there soon come a day when we no longer need memorials like these, and God’s presence will be obvious and close to us all.