Itai and Yitzchak

(not a precise rendering of the speech I gave :))

Sorry in advance for the long speech, but there are two of these little critters and this is a speech I only get to give once J

Before I talk about names, I just want to thank everybody who has helped us so much over the past few months.

The outpouring of support has been amazing and we literally can’t thank you all enough.

When our kids were in the NICU, I had the opportunity to talk to one of the other couples I’d seen around the halls.

The mother had given birth to twins at 29 weeks.

One of them, 10 weeks later, was still in the NICU.

I asked the parents to introduce me, and they did.

Their little daughter’s name was Destiny.

My first thought was that this was a pretty hokey name.

But then I heard the kid’s story.

From week 16 onwards, the doctors had told Destiny‘s parents that she wouldn’t survive.

But she did.

Finally, at week 29, she and her twin were delivered.

One was a healthy size.

But DestinyDestiny weighed only 1.5 pounds.

But she fought, and she survived. And when I met her last week she was healthy – four pounds large and growing.

Perhaps Destiny wasn’t such a bad name after all.

I’m telling this story because names are important. They can carry the past forward, but they can also foretell the future.

In our tradition, it is said that when parents choose names for their kids, they experience Navuah – or prophecy.

Names, like dogs, just seem to fit their owners.

When you name a kid, you are endowing them with the weight of history and tradition.

As far as I’m concerned, naming twin boys is especially hard.

Sure, with two boys, you have to find two names. But that’s the easy part.

The hard part, is figuring out which name belongs to which child.

It’ll be a long time before we know…
… but I sure hope we didn’t screw this one up J

Before I get to the names themselves, I wanted to mention that we had a slight temptation to go a totally different route.

You see, my name is Joseph and I am the older brother of Benjamin.

In this week’s parsha, Yosef, who is the older brother of Benyamin has two sons: Ephraim and Menashe.

So we could have named the kiddos Ephraim and Menasha.

It would have been pretty funny.

The best part would have been blessing my kids.

“May you be like Ephraim and Menashe — oh, wait, you already are.”

Despite the temptation, we didn’t use the names.

So we have two names: Itai Azriel and Yitzchak Betzalel.

Initially, we thought of naming the older kid Yitzchak and the younger Itai.

But as we got to know them, we realized that wouldn’t fit.

Itai is a reasonably common name in Israel.

It is the name of one of David’s thirty – his chosen leaders.

But Itai was different than the others. Where they were Jewish by birth, Itai was a Gittite.

When David faced a challenge to his power from his son Avshalom, and had to flee Jerusalem, he invited Itai to leave him.

But Itai chose to stay with David, much as Ruth had chosen to stay with Naomi.

The Tanach reads:
And Itai answered the king, and said: ‘As the LORD lives, and as my lord the king lives, surely in whatever place my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, your servant will also be.’

Itai is the name of a strong man. Of a faithful man. Of a warrior. By my reading, he was a righteous convert.

As Jews, especially in Portland Oregon, our lives and our communities are so enriched by Gerim and by the vigor (one might say hybrid vigor) that they bring.

All too often, they are mistreated, but that is the community’s loss.

The original Itai’s strengths and loyalty are great examples of the benefits of not trying too hard to drive away the Ger.

If you’ve seen our tiny little son, you might notice he’s a fighter.

He’s a grabber, he’s a greedy guts, and he’s a tough guy.

He’s blond – at least for now.

He almost looks the part of a baby Nordic warrior.

But being strong and faithful isn’t enough.

It is important to recognize that all strength – even this little baby’s robust strength and health – come from Hashem.

And that is where the second name, a guidepost for the future, comes in.

Azriel means ‘My help is G-d’.

For all his strength, we hope our little Itai will realize always that it is a gift from Hashem.

So, Itai Azriel it is.

It is the name of a fighter.

A strong personality.

A force for good.

A force for the people of Israel who recognizes where his strength truly originates.

I know Hashem is my help, and that my strength comes from him.

I have been granted a fundamental blessing in the opportunity to name my eldest son.

Where Itai Azriel looks forward, Yitzchak Betzalel is a name with an eye on the past.

Rebecca’s grandfather on her father’s side was Yitzchak.

He was a big, charismatic, man, filled with a joy for life.

Sadly, he passed away early, during the war, when my father-in-law was only 14.

On my side, Isaac was the name of my mom’s favorite uncle.

Uncle Isaac had no children, at least not biologically.

But what Isaac did will last for generations.

Isaac brought my mother’s family to the Western hemisphere.

It was because of him that they largely avoided the Shoah.

First, he brought family to the US. When that was no longer an option, he brought them to Canada.

When that door also closed, he wasn’t deterred.

Those last souls he rescued made it to Peru and to Argentina and have descendents there today.

In one of my mom’s plays, Feivel mit’n Fiddle, the character Yossi is modeled after her Uncle Isaac.

In the early days described in the play, he was a young man driven towards a better life.

The life saving came later.

In the Torah, Yitzchak is studious and holy and almost of another world. Throughout Jewish history, he has personified personal sacrifice. In his time, he carried the baton of Yiddishkeit for the next generation.

Little Yitzchak is named after all of these people.

Yitzchak’s second name, Betzalel, is after one of the most important influences in my life – a man I never met, but whose stories filled our home growing up.

My Great-Uncle Sylvan, the Last of the Mountain Men, had no children.

He profoundly influenced my father and profoundly influenced my family.

My family lived with him, as a highly unusual clan of hermits, in Idaho.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories.

If you’ve ever visited my parent’s house, you’ll notice it is filled with the beautiful work of Uncle Sylvan’s hands.

Samovar’s with animal’s eyes glinting with life.

Pistols with intricately carved handles.

Knives and pots and even mouse whackers.

And every piece has a spirit of life breathed into it.

If you see Great-Uncle Sylvan’s work, you know it is his.

In Chumash, Betzalel is a divinely inspired craftsman tasked with creating the artifacts of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle.

The Torah writes, in Shemot:

2 ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah;
3 and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,
4 to devise skilful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,
5 and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of workmanship.

Rabbi Sachs, the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, likes to talk about the creation of the world and the creation of the Mishkan.

He points out that the Torah runs through the creation of the world in only 34 verses.

But the creation of the creation of the Mishkan, which was only about the size of a tennis court or two, takes hundreds of verses to describe.

Sachs asks, why?

His answer, is that it is far easier for the infinity of G-d to create something finite, than it is for finite man to create a place that can hold the infinite G-d.

Betzalel’s work was miraculous.

He took simple physical materials, and enabled them to serve as the structure and utensils for the house that would hold the infinite holiness of Hashem.

as a Jewish artist,
Betzalel’s work was not simply the aesthetic creation of the moment,
it was a reflection of his G-d given wisdom and understanding.

To me, Betzalel represents the definition of an artist.

He endowed simple stone, metal and wood with life.

He did not create idols, but objects that captured and emanated the essence of Hashem.

Betzalel, in designing the Ark and other parts of the Mishkan, tackled and met the greatest challenge a craftsman has ever had.

My Great-Uncle Sylvan was also a great craftsman. His work breathes life far beyond the stones, wood, iron and copper that he used to form it.

His work, like that of Betzalel, is filled with spirit.

And so with his middle name, Yitzchak Betzalel, is named after him.

Taken together, Yitzchak Betzalel is a name that suggests fundamental holiness and a bridge between the limits of the physical world and limitlessness of greater world it is an aspect of.

We see, in this name, a physical saver of lives like my Great Uncle Isaac, a joyful man like Rebecca’s grandfather, a man of holy contemplation, and a man whose skilled hands, wise soul and educated mind can bring the spirit of Hashem to even the inanimate.

Perhaps, with time, we will see that, where Itai Azriel is a faithful warrior for the Jewish people, Yitzchak Betzalel is a pure force for holiness.

The brit milah, we just performed, is a covenant.

It is the act through which these children have become a part of the Jewish people.

Perhaps, through the rarely granted power of Navuah, these children’s names will reflect their contributions to that covenant.

Perhaps, through their lives and the lives of children like them, the Children of Israel will not again suffer a catastrophe like that marked by the fast we just completed.

Before I wrap up, I want to answer one question.

More than any other question, people ask us: “Are they natural.”

Watching YouTube, I’ve heard some pretty funny answers to this question asked of other parents.

But my answer is simple:

We had triplets because of a curse. Our dear friend Yossi Rathner, about a year ago, jokingly said: “May you be cursed with triplets.”

Yossi can be a bit of a Bilaam – you know, a powerful voice, but one who delivers more blessings than even he knows.

To me, it was a blessing, and so I said, “Okay.”

And next thing you know, the kids – a powerful blessing indeed – were on their way.

thank you Yossi
thank you Hashem

And may all our children, and your children, grow…

      Through their connection to Torah,
      Through the families they start,
      And through their deeds in this world

…to be powerful forces for the Jewish people, for Hashem, and for good.

Thank you.

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