I Got a Name

From this Shabbat at Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle:

Mazal tov to Elana and Josh Zana on the birth of their new baby daughter, Miriam Hila. We share the joy with the extended Zana, Behar and Okrent families on this great occasion. This past week, our daughter Yosifa gave birth to a baby girl in Eretz Yisrael, and they named her several hours ago. Only after Shabbat here in Seattle, will we find what name they gave her!


This occasion is very auspicious as this week’s Perasha is called “Shemot” – also the name of the entire Book of Exodus. In Hebrew, Sefer Shemot means the Book of Names.

But this title, Shemot, seems somewhat problematic. How so? Each name that our sages assigned to the various books of the Chumash – fit the theme of the book. Bereshit – Genesis – is so named because it does not just record the Genesis of the world, but of the Jewish people – as it traces the lives of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and the foundations of our nationhood. Vayikra begins with Hashem calling to Moshe from the Tent of the Meeting, and focuses on the principles and laws of the proper worship of G-d in the midst of the Israelite camp. In Bamidbar, in the desert, we learn of the various events of the Israelites’ 40 years of travel in the desert. Lastly, Devarim is so-called as it includes Moshe Rabenu’s final speech on the eve of Am Yisrael’s entry into the Land of Israel.

But if we look at Sefer Shemot, while it is true that the first few verses recall the names of the sons of Ya’akov, the Torah immediately tells us that these sons died along with the entire generation. From that point on, there is almost no mention of “names.” In fact, the Torah seems to deliberately avoid bestowing names on the various personalities in the narrative.

Here are some examples:

  • פרעה – מלך מצרים -Pharoah – the King of Egypt. Both of these expressions reflect a role rather than a proper name.
  • המילדות העברית – the Hebrew midwives. Even when the Torah declares that one of their names was Shifra, the other Puah, Rashi – following the lead of our sages – explains that these reflect roles and not actual names. Shifra cleaned up the babies upon their birth, while Puah cooed and calmed the newborns.
  • איש מבית לוי אשה מבית לוי – a man from the house of Levi marries a woman from the House of Levi. This reference to Moshe’s parents sidesteps their actual names, later revealed to be Amram and Yocheved.
  • הילד, נער – The (young) boy, a reference to Moshe
  • בת פרעה – the daughter of Pharoah. She also is only presented only relative to her father, Pharoah.

Even Moshe’s sister, Miriam is referred to merely as אחותו, his sister, while Yocheved, his mother, is soon referred to as אם הילד.
Why does the Torah go out of its way to avoid naming these personalities? Why are they only described in terms of their roles and relationships and not their actual names?

I would like to try to answer this question by pointing to another pattern in the first chapters of Sefer Shemot. It seems that the narrative is saturated with the theme of “rebellion”:

Here are some examples:

  • Pharoah shows ingratitude and rejection of the Israelites: “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef.”
  • The midwives resist Pharoah’s order to kill the Jewish baby boys at birth, choosing to feed him a far-fetched story that the Jewish women gave birth well before the midwives could clandestinely kill the Jewish baby boys.
  • According to Rashi – following the Midrash – Amram had divorced his wife Yocheved, fearful that producing more babies would only lead to the babies’ death; given his prominence, Amram is followed by men throughout the Israelite nation. Miriam, inspired by a heavy dose of “Chutzpah”, condemns her father for what she feels is a policy worse than Pharoah, who only decreed death to the Jewish boys; in contrast, Amram, through divorcing Yocheved, had set an example that could ultimately sentence the entire nation to death.
  • We would have expected that if anyone would adhere to the official Egyptian policy to drown the Jewish boys, it would be Pharoah’s child. Instead, בת פרעה, Pharoah’s daughter, comes to wash on the Nile; upon discovering a baby she identifies as Hebrew, בת פרעה saves the baby, and even returns him to a Jewish woman (his actual mother!) to nurse.
  • As an adult, Moshe rebels against his Egyptian upbringing by killing an Egyptian taskmaster attacking a Jew, only to eventually flee to Midian, where he rescues the daughters of the Priest of Midian from bullies at a local well. Why are the daughters of the Priest of Midian being bullied? Rashi explains: Re’uel’s family had been excommunicated once he abandoned idolatry for monotheism.

So whether it’s the midwives, Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter, Moshe, or Re’uel, Moshe’s father-in -law, a strong current of resistance and rebellion runs through the early chapters of Sefer Shemot. What is the connection between this resistance movement, if you will, and the absence of names at the start of Sefer Shemot?

When Adam HaRishon, the first man was assigned the task of giving names to all of the animals in the Garden of Eden, he wasn’t simply asked to choose arbitrary labels for the different species. A name represents the essence of something. It follows that when Adam called a horse סוס – he had identified an aspect of the essence of a horse that warranted the name סוס. Our tradition prohibits calling another person by a derogatory nick-name. Why? A person’s name reflects his essence, and mocking that is an affront to the essence, the soul of a person. This is a very inspiring idea. In fact, when I was growing up, one of my favorite songs was Jim Croce’s “I got a name”. I have a clear identity!

The characters at the start of Sefer Shemot are sadly in a state of chaos – their surrounding culture, their belief system, societal expectations – are all calling on them to act unethically, improperly. The king bids the midwives to act unethically, to murder innocent children. The man and woman from the House of Levi feel the pressure to end their marriage due to futility and emotional drain presented by the campaign to drown Israelite boys in the Nile; Bat Pharoah is torn between her father’s decree to drown Israelite boys and her humanity and sense of compassion. The initial “anonymity” of these characters, I would like to suggest, reflects this tension, this pressure, inhibiting their strivings to connect to their essence, their “names”.

It’s only after Pharoah’s daughter rescues the baby, and names him Moshe that actual names begin to appear in the narrative.

  • ויגדל משה – and Moshe grew (in stature)
  • וַתָּבֹאנָה, אֶל-רְעוּאֵל אֲבִיהֶן – and the (Midianite) girls came to their father Re’uel. Moshe links up with Re’uel, also known as Yitro…In fact, our sages tell us, Yitro has no less than seven names!
  • וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-צִפֹּרָה בִתּוֹ, לְמֹשֶׁה – and he gave his daughter Tzippora to Moshe

Immediately afterwards, Moshe names his son,

וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ גֵּרְשֹׁם: כִּי אָמַר–גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה. – She gave birth to a son and (Moshe) called his name Gershom, saying “I was a Ger (stranger) in a strange land”.

With the pivotal event of Pharoah’s daughter rescuing and naming Moshe – the verses begin their transition to reintroducing characters with names into the story.

Bringing the two themes together – the one of conscientious objection and rebellion together with the absence and reappearance of names, I would like to suggest the following: Before they resist the influences and pressures pressing them to make outright unethical decisions or holding them back from courageous statements of faith, the personalities in the first chapters of Shemot are “nameless” because they are unable to connect to their essence. Once they display the courage to act on their ethical impulses, these same characters pave the way for a return to essence. This return to essence expresses itself in the reintroduction of “names” into Sefer Shemot.

This message: the ongoing need to re-examine assumptions and influences that govern our lives — is true on a communal, congregational, family and individual level. We must always strive to live lives consistent with our essence.

This is a Shabbat of names, and we join together with the entire congregation wishing our best to the Zana family on the occasion of the naming Miriam Hila, whose name carries special meaning for members of her family. May we continue to celebrate many s’machot together!

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