Names Remembered and Forgotten

Names Remembered and Forgotten


Shabbat Pinchas 5779, 20th July 2019

After the bombing of the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was widely praised for refusing to say the name of the bomber.  She would not give him the fame - or rather, infamy - he wished for.  There is evidence that one of the motivations for people to commit mass violence -whether a terrorist bombing or a high school shooting - is that they crave notoriety.  They would rather be remembered, even with hatred and fear, than for their name to sink into oblivion.  Thanks to Jacinda Ahern, the name of the Christchurch bomber has largely sunk into oblivion and unlike previous bombers who have been named, his notoriety will not prove a spur to others who might consider following him.

There are good reasons for the names of people who have done great wrong to be forgotten.  We see it in the command to wipe out the name of Amalek, the enemy of the Jewish people.  Why should the names of those who have done evil live on when the names of their victims are forgotten?  Yet in our Torah reading, we see something different.  At the end of last week’s Sidra, Pinchas kills an Israelite man and a Midianite women who were committing adultery openly in the camp.  They are not named at this point.  You would think they should be destined to be forgotten. Yet now, not only are they named but their ancestry is given.  Rashi suggests that they are named as high born people: one, Zimri, is the son of a prince of his tribe; the other, Cozbi, is the daughter of a head of a people of Midian. This was to show that Pinchas had been fearless in killing them despite their high status. Rashi also suggests that sometimes it is appropriate to give someone’s name and lineage in order to shame them, just as the names of the righteous and their lineage are given in order to praise them.  It seems that, as the author of Ecclesiastes might have put it, ‘there is a time to remember and a time to forget.’ Sometimes, remembering someone’s name will be an incentive to others to follow them but sometimes, it will discourage others from following because of the shame and disgrace.

The author, or authors, of our Sidra seem to have believed in the importance of naming people.  Our Sidra is full of names.  A genealogy immediately follows the naming of Zimri and Cozbi.  However, it goes beyond most genealogies in the Torah because it sometimes stops and explains who people were. For example, it says, ‘The sons of Eliab:  Nemuel, Datan and Abiram - these are the Datan and Abriam, the elect of the congregation, who strove against Moses and against Aaron in the company of Korach when they strove against the Eternal One.’  Datan and Abiram were remembered for the evil they did, bringing shame to their family and their tribe.   The genealogy mentions notable women too:  ‘And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach’ and ‘Zelophehad, the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters; and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Machlah and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.’  It does not say more about these women - perhaps it did not need to because they were well known and remembered.

Most of us want our names to be remembered, feeling that if our names live on beyond us it will somehow give our lives meaning.  We yearn for immortality.  Yet, at the same time, we know that in all likelihood, in a few generations our names will be forgotten.  Sometimes, names are rediscovered: one of the most prolific baroque composers was an Italian woman called Barbara Strozzi. Until recently almost no-one had heard of her, and the same can be said of countless women scientists, musicians and artists whose work is now recognised.  But they are the exceptions.  Most of our names will be forgotten and that is something that each of us has to come to terms within our own way.  But it does not mean our lives will be meaningless.  It only means that we cannot know what meaning they have.  As we live, we touch others.  We affect them in ways we cannot measure.  Our actions have consequences we can never know.  Like the proverbial flap of the butterfly’s wing, which is said to be able to cause a typhoon at the other side of the world, there is a chain of cause and effect which is unpredictable and may influence the world for good or ill.

For although our names define us, we are more than our names.  We touch people by what we do.  We influence events and though that influence might seem slight, we can never tell how significant it will be.  Better than wishing for our name to live on, we can strive to ensure that our deeds will endure for good.  As George Elliot put it so beautifully: ‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’  Names can endure for shame, as the names of Zimri and Cozbi did, or for praise, as the names of the daughters of Zelophehad did.  But, as the rabbis said, our real monument is our deeds.  May our deeds endure for good and for blessing.