Bar Mitzvah of Morris Jacob Schwartz
October 21, 2023
Noah is one of the most famous stories in the Torah. But I don’t want to talk about why God made a flood, or why Noah survived, or any of those questions. I want to talk about why there is a long list of names at the end of my Torah portion? Rabbi Marc and my dad both told me that every word of the Torah is important. That’s understandable when the words are “Let there be light,” or “Let my people go.” But why on earth is there a long, long, long list of seemingly random names at the end of my parsha?
I think one answer is to keep a record of the people who survived the flood. Anyone could say “And people survived, the end.” However, having a list of names is extra proof that people survived and that God did not have to restart the human species, and… that my parsha is not one big ancient cover-up story.
Another answer is that every life is important and every individual person is unique. By listing names it recognizes the people who repopulated the world and without them, we would most likely not be here today.
A name is a person’s identity. Whenever a person who knows you sees you they don’t say (for example) “Hey, it’s the kid with dark hair who is relatively short for his age.” They say, “Hey Morris.” Whenever you achieve something in life your name is how people know that you are the person who did it. Without names we would not have winners for anything. For example, if they announced the winner of the Nobel prize by saying, “Congratulations to someone for inventing time travel!” it would be pretty confusing.
Contemporary Rabbi Benjamin Blech says: “The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to that word, the middle two letters, shin and mem, make the word shem, Hebrew for ‘name.’ Your name is the key to your soul. Names are a book. They tell a story. The story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission. That explains the fascinating midrash that tells us when we complete our years on this earth and face heavenly judgment, one of the most powerful questions we will be asked at the outset is, What is your name – and did you live up to it?”
This quote demonstrates the spiritual power of our names. Another powerful example of the power of names is illustrated by the following poem, written by the famous 20th century Israeli poet Zelda:
Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and given by what we wear Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love Each of us has a name given by our celebrations and given by our work Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death
This poem supports my argument that a name is a person’s identity. My name is Morris and I was named after my great-grandfather Morris, he was probably named after his great-grandfather Morris and so on and so forth. Why do Jewish people name their children after their ancestors? Well, to follow the commandment to respect your elders you need to know who your elders are. And by naming our children after our ancestors, it helps us remember, as a people, those who came before us.
So the list of names at the end of my parsha, maybe is not so random after all.
This particular Torah scroll, as some of you know, survived the Holocaust, even though the community who owned this Torah did not. Today, I am the first Bar Mitzvah to read from this Torah since it traveled across the Atlantic to its new home here at Bonai Shalom. This Torah, which is older than the United States of America, has seen countless Bar Mitzvahs. The Czech Bar Mitzvah boys who read from this Torah might not have spoken English, but they still read these same words from this same scroll. By reading the list of names of the people who survived the flood, I am keeping alive a tradition of honoring our elders and Jews who have come before us, especially those who are no longer living.
I hope that by my becoming a Bar Mitzvah today I have lived up to my name, and that as I grow I continue to honor my Jewish heritage and the legacy of my ancestors.
I would like to thank all of the people who helped me prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, and of course I’d like to mention them each by name: including Elaine for teaching me the majority of the stuff you just heard me do, Rabbi Marc for teaching me about Judaism and helping with my D’var Torah, Congregation Bonai Shalom for teaching me so much about Jewish community life and Torah service, all of my relatives who traveled here today to see me read Torah, my friends who came to services today, and of course, my parents, who not only named me Morris after my great-grandfather, but who raised me as a Jewish person and are why I am here today.