Nowadays it is customary for someone who converts to take on a new first name in Hebrew—Abraham is a common choice for men and Sarah for women. The point is that changing one’s name suggests breaking with one’s former life, which is precisely what a convert does.
And yet, an ancient midrash connected to this week’s Torah reading has something quite striking to say on the subject. It begins by citing R. Abbahu’s comment on certain verse in Hosea (14:8), “They shall return to sit in His shadow: they shall bring the grain to life and flourish like the grapevine: their name is like the wine of Lebanon.” This verse, R. Abbahu seeks to assert, is actually referring to converts to Judaism (even though converts are not explicitly mentioned). To begin with, he sees those who “return to sit in His shadow” as a reference to those who come and take refuge in the shadow of Israel’s God, namely, converts.
R. Abbahu then explains that the remaining words in this verse also refer to converts, in fact, they are intended to say in the strongest terms that a convert becomes in every sense just like other Jews. So, he asserts, “They shall bring the grain to life” means that they will come to be altogether the “main thing” (‘ikar), that is, just like other Israelites [grain-based bread being the basis, ‘ikar, of any true meal]. Similarly, “They shall flourish like the grapevine”— this again means, by Abbahu’s reading, that “they will be just like Israel” [who are compared to the grapevine in Psalm 80:9]. Then comes his striking conclusion: “’Their name is like the wine of Lebanon’: Said the Holy One: The names of converts are as pleasing to Me as libation wine that ends up being offered before Me on the altar [of the Jerusalem Temple],” explaining that the word “Lebanon” sometimes refers to the Temple itself (see, e.g., Deut 3:25).
If you’ve been following this so far, you will have gotten the last point: the mention of the “wine of Lebanon” fits with the overall connection to converts. Just as what started out destined to be libation wine offered on a pagan altar can sometimes end up being “converted” and offered on the Jerusalem Temple’s altar, so the original name of a convert (perhaps even a name originally destined to commemorate a pagan god) can likewise be “converted” and end up belonging to one who is now a full-fledged Jew. Far from needing to be changed, this pagan name is, God says, “pleasing to Me.”
But what does all this have to do with the first verse of this week’s Torah reading?
At this point the midrash turns abruptly to a certain verse in the book of Chronicles (1 Chron 4:18), which it interprets as asserting that Moses had numerous Hebrew names: Yered, Avi Gedor, Heber, Avi Sokho, Yekutiel, and Avi Zenoah. Each of these names, it says, was given to commemorate a particular exploit of Moses. Thus, he was called Yered because he “brought down” (horid) the Torah from on High; Avi Gedor, because there were many who guarded (goderim) Israel from sin, but the father (Avi) of them all was Moses. And so forth for the other names mentioned; in fact, the midrash goes on to claim that Moses had a total of ten such names. “Yet the Holy One said to Moses: Of all the names by which you have been called, I will call you by the name that was given by Bithia, Pharaoh’s daughter, as it says in the book of Exodus, ‘And she called his name Moses’” (Exod 2:10). That is why, this midrash says, the book of Leviticus begins with the words “And He called to Moses” (and not to Yered, Avi Gedor, or any of Moses’ other names).
Putting all this together, the midrash seems to saying that there is nothing wrong with a convert keeping his or her former name, just as Moses did; it is like “libation wine that ends up being offered before Me on the altar.”