July 16, 2024
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Change Your Name, Change Your Fate

In this week’s parsha of Lech Lecha we read that God changed Avram’s name to Avraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah (17: 4-16.) Although they were senior citizens, they were able to conceive a child and have a child named Yitzchak. What was the significance of the name change? Is changing a name somehow magical in this respect or does it symbolize something deeper?

We are aware that a person’s self-perception affects the way they behave. If a person tells themselves that they are worthless and will never amount to anything, they will most likely remain worthless and never amount anything. Similarly, if a person has ambition and can picture themselves as achievers, it is more likely that they will be successful.

Often in life we are only limited by our own expectations. Our self-image is like a thermostat. If we set the standard too low and think of ourselves as mediocre, never expecting to succeed, thinking we will not accomplish much, then that is probably as far as we will ever get. On the other hand, if we have higher standards and expect to be successful and accomplished, the odds are we will probably do much better in life. Our mental image of ourselves may, indeed, set our own limitations.

That is why Hashem tells Avraham to go outside and look at the stars (15:5). Similarly, that is why Moshe tells the Jewish people to gaze at these same stars (Devarim 1:10.) When we go outside and look at the limitless stars in the sky we may come to understand that our potential is limitless as well. Our expectations are raised.

How we refer to ourselves, even as simply as by name, has a profound impact on our self-perception. There is the famous story in Megillat Rut (1:20) where Ruth’s mother-in-law is depressed and despondent. She tells everyone in Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi, the pleasant one, rather, call me Mara, the embittered one.” By changing her name, she now embodied these new characteristics of despondency and hopelessness. Knowing that a person’s name can influence their attitude and behavior, the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva (2:4) suggests that a sinner consider changing his name. In effect, the sinner declares himself to be a new man. “I am no longer the same person who did all those evil deeds.”

The Talmud in Berachot (7b) quotes R’ Elazar who stated that the name of a person has an effect on his actions. The name reflects the purpose and essence of his soul in the world. The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah (16b) again suggests that if a person changes his name he can change his fate. That is where the idea originated that a sick person changes his name. (We typically add the name “Chaim,” to life.) This week’s parsha about Sarai changing her name to Sarah is quoted as proof. She changed her name and changed her fate.

Changing the name does not necessarily have magical properties. Instead, by changing the name, the person now sees themselves and their life circumstances in a whole new light. Whereas previously, if you would have told Avram and Sarai that they would have a baby at this advanced age they would have fallen on the floor laughing (17:17.) Now that their names were changed they had a whole new perspective. “Avraham” means father of nations. “Sarah” means princess to all nations. When they now met for breakfast, they would call each other “father of all nations” or “princess of all nations.” Hearing that often enough, it changed their perspective and they were now able to visualize themselves as capable of having children.

In life, we have to build ourselves up and see ourselves and our loved ones in a positive light. Calling a child a winner, for example, will go a lot further than calling him a loser. Calling a spouse by a positive nickname will make them more likely to succeed than calling them by a derogatory name.

May Hashem help all of us reach our greatest potentials. All we may need is a positive vision, some hope and a good name to live up to.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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