In Jewish tradition, the giving of names is one of the greatest responsibilities that God entrusted to humankind. In one of the earliest midrashic stories about Creation, we learn that even God’s angels were not suited for the job of naming the nascent animals, and God appointed Adam to do so in their stead.
“Rabbi Acha said: In the hour that the Holy One came to create the human, God said to the ministering angels: ‘Let us make a human in our image.’ They said to God: ‘This one (human), what good is he?’ God said: ‘His wisdom is greater than yours.’
God brought before the angels a beast and animal and bird and said to them: ‘This one, what is his name?’ And they didn’t know. Then God asked Adam: ‘This one, what is his name?’ (And Adam gave them all proper names.)
‘And you, what is your name?’ Adam responded: ‘I? It would be right to be called Adam since I was created from the ground (Hebrew: adamah).’ ‘And I, what is My name?’ God inquired. Adam replied: ‘It would be right for you to be called my Lord (Hebrew: Adonai) since you are lord (Hebrew: adon) to all the creatures.’ (Genesis Rabbah 17:4, commenting on Genesis 2:19)
Such is the power of names and the powerful honor that comes with the gift to give them. Adam blessed each animal with a name, and then himself, and finally, Adam chose a name – personal, relational – by which to address his God.
A dozen years ago, when my wife Lizzie and I got the news that – finally! – we were expecting, we did not take lightly the process of selecting a name for our firstborn. We knew, of course, that our child would go on to make his own name for himself, a process that would take years of emerging character and formative experiences. But the first name that one is given can be both descriptive and prescriptive; it’s an amalgamation of memories of the past and hopes for the future, both of which will be infused into the child’s character by the very parents who selected the name.
When we chose the name Micah, we did so for two reasons: the first was to honor my father, Michael (z”l), who was a man of remarkable character and an endless supply of joie de vivre – enough for him to soak up the sights, sounds, and smells around him, and plenty to share with anyone nearby. The second reason was a biblical verse from which Lizzie and I have drawn tremendous strength and guidance over the years, Micah 6:8:
“He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God.”
In theory, it’s remarkably simple. Who wouldn’t agree that justice is worth doing, that kindness is worth loving, and that humility is a path worth walking? They’re so central to what it means to be human – let alone Jewish – that the Talmud argues that all of the 613 mitzvot (deeds) of Jewish law are based on these three precepts (Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24a).
But in practice, things get much more complicated. Too many among us treat these three core precepts – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly – more like a “choose-your-own-adventure” than the foundational triad that they are meant to be. Justice is not justice if it is not accomplished through kindness, hence the remarkable success of nonviolent movements over the years. Kindness is not truly kind if you humblebrag about it later. And if choosing humility – i.e. remaining silent – causes injustice to be perpetrated, then Micah’s whole system collapses under the weight of our selective goodness. This is not an “either/or” proposition; Micah uses “and” very intentionally, and so should we.1
We are living through a moment in which millions of Americans believe that the most just thing they can do is to dehumanize those who might hold differing beliefs than they do. And millions of others respond to the questionable actions of others by canceling them in and from the public square, sacrificing opportunities to judge them with kindness, or holding off on judgment entirely and choosing curiosity instead.
We have forgotten just how much God-given power comes with the responsibility of naming others, let alone of building a name for ourselves. I imagine the biblical Adam taking his precious time with each animal before it passed before him – kneeling down to look the donkey in the eyes, running his hands through the sheep’s thick wool, taking in the sight of the Ox’s rippling muscle – all before uttering the names that would come to define them for eternity to come.
Now imagine taking that kind of care with each of the divine souls that we toss aside with broad, sweeping names – from “deplorables” to “woke libs” and everything in between. Diluting the toxic polarization that has seeped into the American cultural melting pot will take time. It will take diligence. But most of all, it will demand of each of us the courage to treat Micah’s words – especially the “ands” – with far greater sanctity than we ever imagined possible.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck is committed to leaving behind a world that is more compassionate and connected than the one he found. In pursuit of that commitment he serves as the Executive Vice President at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Founding Executive Director of Glean Network, which partners with Columbia Business School. He was ordained in 2012, and earned his MBA that year, as well.
A sought-after thought leader, he has delivered keynotes at stages ranging from TEDx to the US Army’s General Officer Convocation, published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, and Religion News Service, has a column for The Wisdom Daily, contributed to Meaning Making – 8 Values That Drive America’s Newest Generations (2020, St. Mary’s Press) and is the co-author of the forthcoming book Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire (2023, Fortress Press).
He also serves as:
- a Founding Partner of Starts With Us, a movement to counteract toxic polarization in America,
- a Research Advisory Board Member of Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on spirituality, mental health and Gen Z,
- a founding board member of Beloved Network, a network of startup Jewish communities, and
- a member of the Board of Advisors of the Changemaker Initiative.
He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife, Lizzie Pollock, and their three children: Micah, Nessa, and Ayla. In his spare time, he finds sanctuary while climbing rock walls around New England and tending to his backyard garden.
- Thanks to David French for sharing his beautiful take on this verse at a recent One America Movement (oneamericamovement.org/) event