A New Name, A New Beginning
By Constance Scharff
I let the call go to voicemail. I didn’t have to look at the caller ID to know who was calling. The rabbi hung up and immediately called back without leaving a message. When I did not pick up the second time, he called again. Realizing that I had no option but to pick up, I answered the third call. Somehow, he knew I was home and was not going to let me be.
Everyone had been looking for me that day. Earlier, I had sent a friend of mine my will, then disappeared. When he could not reach me, he called the police. Four police squad cars and an ambulance were sent to my house, frightening my neighbors. The police let themselves in and conducted an exhaustive search. At some point, someone thought to call the rabbi. Now home, I dreaded picking up the receiver.
The rabbi did not yell at me as I thought he might or even ask me why I had worried everyone. In fact, he pretended that nothing was wrong at all, that he was simply calling to chat. I curled up in my bed with the phone, trying to stay awake against the sweet sound of the rabbi’s voice. He never calls just to chat, but I played along with the ruse because he spoke in a way that made me feel calm and cared for.
Over the next few days, we talked about what was really going on with me. I think he realized almost immediately that I did not want to kill myself, but that I had run out of solutions for dealing with my depression. We talked about many things, in particular about my father. Though he had died fifteen years earlier, I was still tormented by my memories of him. The rabbi looked at me in horror as I described the time my father beat me into unconsciousness for refusing to eat pork chops and stuffing on the first night of Pesach. In fact, there was so little in our relationship to respect that I had long ago asked for and received a rabbinic dispensation from observing my father’s yahrzeit.
To deal with an upbringing like mine, I’d had more than a decade of the finest intensive psychotherapy money could buy, seen psychiatrists, medical doctors, acupuncturists and spiritual healers the world over, been on antidepressants and even checked into a hospital specializing in treating trauma for several weeks. All of it had helped, but none of it had relieved my suffering. The rabbi and I both knew he couldn’t “fix” anything, but he made a pact with me – so long as I kept talking to him, he’d listen. Knowing too that I didn’t really want to die, I agreed.
There were occasions when I shared things that clearly made the rabbi uncomfortable, but he never flinched. I think it was this aspect of his character that made me most appreciate him; no matter what I brought to the table, he let me share it. Over the next year and a half, my mood improved, largely due to my conversations with the rabbi. I had ups and downs, but overall, I felt better. There were low points when the rabbi seemed miraculously to find time to speak with me. His doing so allowed me to trust him, to have a firm sense that he is a man of his word.
Then the bottom fell out of my world. I learned that it would not be possible for me to have children. I was devastated. Although I knew that the pronouncement was coming, it leveled me. I went from the doctor’s office to my bed where I spent the next three weeks alternately staring out the window and crying. As my mood sank again, it was to the rabbi that I turned for help. Sitting in his office, trying not to cry, I looked at the books stacked on his table while he stared at me with a well-practiced gaze.
“I think you need to change your name,” the rabbi said. His comment was so discordant with what we had been discussing that I burst out laughing.
“Change my name!” I exclaimed. “I have a Hebrew name. What can I do about that?”
“While it’s not common, you can change your name,” the rabbi quietly replied. “The proper choosing of names goes back to Adam in the Garden. Your name is intended to be a reflection of the best parts of your spirit; your name allows you to become whom it is HaShem meant you to be. I think part of your problem is that you have the wrong name.”
I looked at the rabbi critically, raising an eyebrow as I stared at him. I was skeptical. I’d never heard of being able to change one’s Hebrew name and I wasn’t sure how doing so would help me feel better. He watched me for another moment then asked, “Who named you?”
I could barely whisper the response, “My father.”
The rabbi looked as if he was going to be ill. “After whom did he name you?”
“I was named after my father’s deceased sister, a woman who was mentally ill and probably drug addicted. About a year before I was born, she died in a house fire when she passed out in bed with a lit cigarette.”
Neither the rabbi nor I spoke for some time. I whispered my next question. “And if I changed my name, what could it be?”
Leaning forward ever so slightly in his chair, the rabbi said, “It can be whatever you want.”
I could have a new name. The possibility enlivened and excited me. Upon returning home, I looked up the Hebrew name I wanted on the internet. It was right there in beautiful script. The instant I saw it, I felt an immediate internal shift. It was in that moment that I had a new beginning.
I emailed the rabbi to share with him what I had chosen. He responded right away, telling me that my choice was perfect. He further explained that while it is rare for someone to have the wrong name, if a change is warranted, it should be made as soon as possible. We scheduled the ceremony for the next Shabbat.
Quickly, the day of my renaming arrived. I turned up at the synagogue with a robust sense of hope. Since deciding to change my name, I had lost four pounds, my diabetes had almost resolved, and though I had suffered from a severe anxiety disorder all of my life, fear had left me entirely. More than that, though, I had a tremendous awareness that everything was O.K. I had all the same problems we’d discussed in his office, but I no longer felt that there was something inherently wrong with me.
As I watched the rabbi and listened to him explain to the congregation that he was about to rename me, I felt grounded and strong. There was no question; this decision was right.
Before I was called to the amud, I thought of all the hard times I’d had in which the rabbi had supported me. I knew that I was likely one of his more demanding and emotionally volatile congregants, but he didn’t complain. Every time I needed him, he made himself available with a kind word or one of his big hugs. I still don’t know how he does it – shows up that is – because there are so many of us asking for his time that he must be two places at once. But he never let me down.
Finally, it was all happening. I looked into the rabbi’s eyes while he sang the Mi Sheberach. As the rabbi sang his prayer, I remembered all the people who had tried to help me through the years. Each did their best for me, but none ever wholly solved the problem. It was the rabbi who got to the heart of the matter.
Near the end of his prayer, as we continued to hold one another’s gaze, the rabbi took hold of my elbow and held it tightly. My smile broadened. I knew I would never be suicidal again. In changing my name, the problem was simply removed. I no longer had to make myself wrong to make my father right. That “faithful daughter of Dennis,” the one who had spent all her life trying to twist and distort her history to paint her father as a decent person, had become “HaShem’s Beloved Daughter.” I was in every way free.
When the prayer was over, I continued to smile and gaze into the rabbi’s eyes. I was filled with joy. I dropped all concern for decorum and grabbed him, hugging him tightly. As he hugged me back, I whispered, “Thank you,” into his ear. It wasn’t much, but those were the only words that had any real meaning. The rabbi and I looked at each other one more moment as we pulled away from our embrace. I couldn’t have been more grateful for his efforts; he never gave up on me.
Is my rabbi in possession of special powers? I will say he has a keen understanding of our mystical traditions, a lot of patience, and a willingness to listen – really listen -- such that he can get to the core of a problem and liberate a soul from the torments of fear.
I am now Ahuva Batya, as HaShem intended me to be. I can live as I was meant to, with a full heart. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I am happy. I owe that previously impossible transformation to my rabbi. If he isn’t a superhero, I don’t know who is.