In the prayers of P’sukei D’zimrah (Songs of Praise) that we read each morning leading up to Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea), a passage is included from the prophet Nechemiah. This passage proclaims God’s presence and power and acknowledges God’s role leading up to the Exodus and then the splitting of the Red Sea.
As part of that proclamation, Nechemiah refers to the covenant that God made with Abraham, stating; “You are Adonai, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of the Ur of the Chaldees, naming him Abraham, finding in him a faithful servant” (Nechemiah 9:7).
Both the covenant and the renaming of our first patriarch that Nechemiah is referring to, are to be found in this week’s parasha. It is no coincidence that these two aspects appear one after the other, they are inextricably linked. There are a few instances in the Torah where God establishes a covenant with an individual or with a group of people, where there is a formal agreement between God and said person/group, establishing a set of obligations that each party will adhere to. In ancient Near Eastern customs, treaties (on which the system of covenants are believed to be based) were drawn up between people and between nations for a multitude of reasons, so the practice is not unfamiliar for that era.
Covenants are also usually sealed with a sign, and God tells Abraham; “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Gen 17:11). It is from this commandment that the tradition of ritual circumcision (brit) is created, honouring this covenant and binding future generations to the same covenant.
While the physical act of circumcision is only applicable to males, it is through the other component of God’s proclamation to Abraham that we can see that all Jews are connected to this commitment. Chizkuni (13th century CE commentary by Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah) teaches us that it was an ancient custom to change someone’s name as a sign that they had received a promotion. Through this act, which entails changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah, we recognise that while circumcision is restricted to males, it is God’s intention to include all Jews in this covenant.
This acknowledgement is therefore included in the ceremony for naming children whether at a Brit Milah or at a Simchat/Brit Bat (naming and welcoming ceremony for girls). In each naming ceremony (be it for a baby or for someone who chooses to join our people later on in life), we invoke the memory of and connection to our ancestors, particularly Abraham and Sarah, to officially bring them into the same covenant that God entered into with Abraham, Sarah and the entire Jewish people.
Just as God changed Avram and Sarai’s names, promoting them to members of the covenant that binds us all, we do the same for our children and for all who become members of our faith. Not only do we ask that they be blessed with a life of Torah, Chuppah (marriage) and Ma’asim Tovim (performance of good deeds), we also place them at the very beginning of our journey, the same one that Nechemiah refers to, as part of our heritage and destiny.
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein