We are proud to announce that we have named our son Akiva Betzalel. With your indulgence, we’d be honored to share a little about the names we’ve chosen, and about Akiva’s namesakes.
The poet Carl Sandburg once said, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” Akiva Betzalel, we believe you are God’s stake in the future of our people and our world. We have given you your names to inspire, guide, and prepare you for that sacred purpose.
First and foremost, it’s impossible to name a child Akiva Betzalel without evoking the most famous figures who have borne those names. And, indeed, we chose Akiva Betzalel because we deliberately wanted to link our son with those spiritual ancestors.
Akiva ben Yosef was among the greatest, and best known, of the ancient rabbis. The Talmud is quite literally filled with his teachings, maxims, and legal opinions. He reared many students, a number of whom subsequently became extraordinary sages themselves. No wonder the Talmud refers to Akiva as “Chief of the Sages.”
Of the qualities Rabbi Akiva embodied, we were most inspired by his passion for Torah and his resistance to tyranny: his determination to do what he saw as right, regardless of the consequences; his refusal to abandon his convictions, even in the face of great persecution.
The Talmud relates that, after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (a brave revolt against the evil empire of Rome that Akiva himself is reported to have supported), the Roman authorities forbade Jews from teaching, learning, and practicing Torah (B. B’rakhot 61b). Rabbi Akiva, however, continued to convene assemblies in public for Torah study. A colleague said to him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire?” Akiva bravely answered, “More than I fear the Romans, I fear abandoning Torah.” I like to think he used these acts of civil disobedience to expound upon the verse he saw as the Torah’s greatest principle: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Ultimately, Akiva was arrested and executed by the Romans for his “crime” of teaching Torah. It is said that he was reciting the Shema during his execution, and that his soul left his body as he uttered the word “ehad,” one; fitting for a man who devoted his life to the notion that, above all, we are called to love each other.
Akiva, like your namesake, you have similarly been born into a world where evil is rampant, ascendant, powerful. These are dark times. They call for fulness of faith and courage of conviction; the determination to know right from wrong, good from evil, and to be steadfast in doing the right and good. Even if it is unpopular, even if there are negative consequences, we pray that you remain unafraid and undeterred.
As I taught just two days ago on Yom Kippur, our tradition, honoring your namesake’s legacy, demands we be “unyielding, uncompromising extremists for human dignity.” While we of course want you to be smart and safe about the ways you fight for what is right, we nevertheless pray that you live up to the sacred call of our tradition, as did your namesake.
We’ve also named you for the biblical Betzalel, the architect of the mishkan. Betzalel is the person charged by God to ensure the fulfilment of the divine command, “Make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you.” This verse is frequently understood outside of its normal context to mean that God’s presence – the manifestation of universal justice, kindness, and peace – will only come to dwell in our world if we make of our world a vessel to hold it. In other words, we have the ability to make this world into a place fit for the indwelling of the Divine Presence. Our destiny is in our hands. Betzalel is thus the person primarily responsible for creating that structure.
Similarly, Akiva Betzalel, we pray that you see yourself as the person primarily responsible for making this world a place that can hold God’s presence. Because, if not you, then who?
We have also named you Akiva for Adira’s Tante Kathy, Kathy Green, who died just a few short weeks ago, well before her time, after a heroic struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
Kathy was gracious, kind, humble, and fiercely intelligent. A serious spiritual seeker and a gifted educator, she had a gift for making people feel at ease, and was genuinely interested in what others thought and felt. She was also disarmingly funny, and could catch you off-guard with her dry-as-gin wit. Most inspiring to us was how Tante Kathy faced the illness that plagued her later years and ultimately took her life. She did not become embittered or hopeless. She quietly forged ahead, facing each challenge with strength and gratitude. As my brother-in-law Rabbi Or put it, “Kathy possessed an unusual combination of resilience and acceptance, and she held that tension with uncommon grace.”
Akiva, we pray that you, too, like your Tante Kathy of Blessed Memory, will face life’s trials with resilience and grace; kindness, generosity, humor, and dogged determination to magnify and sanctify each moment that you have on this earth.
Finally, since Adira tells me that you will be our last child — jury’s still out, in my opinion — we also wanted to squeeze in a few more honorable mentions. These aren’t “namesakes,” per se – a namesake is, after all, believed to be a reincarnated soul, and we don’t want TK’s soul to get crowded in there – but beloved ancestors who inspired our choice of your name, and whose memories we hope inspire you.
Rabbi Akiva was understood in Jewish tradition as having been the spiritual heir of Moses (B. Menahot 29b). Moshe was the Hebrew name of your great-grandfather, my Zaide, Moe Farrow, of Blessed Memory. My Zaide, like your namesake Akiva, risked his life to fight tyranny. My Zaide was a simple man, a butcher and a grocer, dedicated to yiddishkeit and his family, who owned a small store in an impoverished part of Miami. But his simplicity belied the greatness of his heart and the expanse of his moral vision. An immigrant himself, he epitomized the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). He gave away food to anyone in need, even if it hurt his bottom line. He refused to abide by Jim Crow laws, and taught his children about the evils of racism and segregation. I pray his memory and example instructs you as it does me.
Akiva is a variant of Ya’akov, the name of the Jewish patriarch who was later renamed Yisrael. Yisrael was the Hebrew name of your great-grandfather, my grandfather, Jay Knopf, of Blessed Memory. Your great-grandfather was thoughtful, intelligent, and funny. He, like your namesake Akiva, and like my Zaide Moe, risked his life to fight tyranny. But I remember him most like this: he was always singing, and he was passionate about Jewish life and Jewish community. He taught me the importance of holding beliefs passionately while being open to the views of others, of learning for its own sake, of contributing to the wider conversation through the written word, of encountering life with a balance of seriousness and silliness. I miss him every day, and pray his memory and example inspires you as it does me.
Akiva Betzalel, you are the heir of a great spiritual legacy. We pledge to do everything we can to raise you to be worthy of the names you bear.