My name is Akiva Ben Joseph, you killed my father, prepare to die

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” Before he died, my dad would remind me that I was almost named Karl. I’d like to think that I would still be the same person I am today even if they’d named me Karl. Somehow, I don’t think so.

Growing up with a name like “Keeva” has its pros and cons. I’ve met only one other. It’s a rare name. As a child, my parents had me research the name in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Look up ‘Rabbi Akiva Ben Joseph.’” It turns out my folks weren’t just being cute with my unique moniker.

Rabbi Akiva’s Wikipedia page (or Encyclopedia entry) is worth reading. He was an illiterate farm hand who married up. At age 40 he went to Torah school. He and Saint Paul share a common educational home in the Gamaliel school (the Sanhedrin) a generation apart.

The Rabbi grew in his influence ballooning his discipleship from 12,000 to 24,000 to 48,000 over the years. He is one of the original Rabbis. His was known for his care for the poor and vulnerable, and is responsible for systematizing key Jewish legal texts.

Executed by the Roman Empire using a process called “combing,” where your skin is combed off using hot knives, he was found calmly reciting his prayers despite the agony of the slow, methodical process. In short, he told his executioner that he had loved the Lord with his mind and soul, and now he could love God with his body.

His last word was “One.”

It’s hard to live up to my namesake. There is no doubt about it: my parents set me up. That same Encyclopedia still has a sticky note bearing my childish handwritten research from 1985, accounting for the Rabbi in the first person. “I was an important Rabbi like Jesus. The Romans pulled off my skin…” Yet and still I am proud of my name and grateful for my parents for it. I’d like to think that in some cosmic way, my name has inspired my life of service to the poor, theological inquiry, and a worldview that we are indeed “one.” Surely, I don’t want to go out the way the Rabbi did, but I am confident enough in my faith to speak truth to power.

For better or worse, I’ve passed along the creative branding to my son, Ketch (a two masted sailboat that can weather any storm). My hope for him, as my folks hoped for me, is that he will own his potential and do his best to bring people together. Surely, this won’t be because of his cool name, but because his mother and I ensure that he knows who he is and whose he is. This goes for his sister Claire, too (named after one of the kindest most elegant women in our family).

As I grow as a father, my goal is for my children to develop a strong moral foundation based on principles of justice, mercy, and compassion, modeled after the examples we set for them. I don’t care how much money they make or what prestige they achieve. That they are kind and good people is what matters most. That’s what I want our name to mean. That’s what motivates me to be better.

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