25th Tevet 5784
January 6, 2024
What’s in a name?
This week, along with all Jews around the world, we open Shemot, the second book of our Chumash, the Five Books of Moses that constitute our Torah. Each book takes its name from title of the first chapter of the relevant book. We commonly call this book Exodus, and indeed it chronicles the formative travels of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to the threshold of the promised land, but the Hebrew title of this book – Shemot – actually translates as “Names”.
What’s in a name? Why is it so important?
The book launches with the statement:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:Exodus 1:1
The portion of text which we read as last year’s triennial portion proceeds to list the names of each of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Jacob. Throughout the Torah, Jacob is referred to as Israel. We glibly refer to ourselves as the Children of Israel, but do we stop and reflect that we are each literally descendants of Jacob? The Torah brings this home by reminding us here, and often, that we are “b’nai Yisrael,” the sons of Jacob. This theme is struck repeatedly in the Passover Seder, wherein, according to Hagaddah editors Rabbi Z. Harry Gutstein and Rabbi Nathan Goldberg, the ancient learned Rabbis insist that each of us must look upon ourselves as if we personally had come forth from Egypt. The story of the Four Sons, in which scheming seder participants all vie for the role of the wise son, is a prime example. The doting parent is encouraged to emphasize to each son the personal connection of having experienced Egyptian bondage himself or herself.
Our more recent forbears obviously felt this strong connection across the millennia when they selected the original name for this Jewish community in 1887 and called it “The Sons of Israel of Binghamton.” Though modernized to the current name of Temple Israel, the connection to the name of Ya’akov – Jacob – Israel is as obvious as it is meaningful.
Back to our story: After listing the names of the Children of Israel, the Exodus story continues with this year’s triennial reading, which describes the fertile multiplication of the family, and the growing perception among Egyptians that these Israelis presented an emerging threat (Is it me, or does this sound familiar?), and the Pharaoh’s decree that all male children of Jewish mothers should be summarily executed. The birth of Moses, and masquerade of his heritage is described, which holds up until his identity is revealed through a protective act – murdering a taskmaster. Moses fears Pharaoh’s revenge, and flees to Midian. He hangs out there at the local well, (“haba’ayer”which appears to be ancient Hebrew for “pub”) and in an oft-repeated sequence of events, winds up marrying local girl Zipporah, who happens to be the daughter of the Midian Priest Jethro.
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, conditions for the enslaved Children of Israel are worsening, and the Eternal hears their intense cries of woe. Moses is shepherding near Mt. Horeb when God revealed herself to Moses through the miracle of the burning bush. For another connection here to Temple Israel, note architect Jeff Low’s representation of the burning bush which adorns the Aron Kodesh which holds our sacred Torah scrolls. The bush itself opens to reveal the scrolls of the law within. When Moses turned away from the sight of a bush which was aflame but not consumed, the Eternal called out his name: “Moses!” and Moses replied: “Hineni!” “Here I am!”
Then transpires a struggle wherein reluctant Moses seeks to first to avoid the challenging task God has placed on his shoulders – convincing Pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves. God assures Moses that with God on his side and the elders of the Children of Israel by his side, Moses will prevail. God also teaches Moses a few tricks to impress the Pharaoh and his priests and magicians. Before he sets about his task, Moses wants to know the name of the Eternal, and God simply tells him: “Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh“ ”I Shall Be As I Shall Be!” and that God shall be known as the God of Moses’ forbears Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the Children of Israel. And God emphasizes that “…This is My Name forever and this is My remembrance from generation to generation.”
Moses ultimately accepts the assignment, but not before he himself is punished for his misdeeds, according to Rashi. Rashi opined that Moses displayed yetzer harah when he spoke slanderously about the Israelites (“They won’t listen to me.”) and at first shirked his responsibility and later demanded demonstration of God’s name and power. Ramban takes a kinder interpretation, believing that Moses may have intended to say: “I know that they should listen to me, but I do not think that they will.” In any case, the damage is done, and for all that, Moses was denied entry into the land, and Aaron will ultimately succeed him as leader of the Children of Israel at that point.
Next year at this time, we will read the last portion of this chapter which describes the horrors of slavery in Egypt, how Moses is commanded to return to that country and confront Pharaoh, how Moses’ firstborn son (with Zipporah) is circumcised, and Moses’ first encounters with Pharaoh. Next week, we will explore Moses’ sequential encounters with Pharaoh as Moses seeks to convince Pharaoh to free the Jews, requiring the divine assistance of a succession of increasingly vile plagues.
Generation after generation, we name our children, usually in brit milah or naming ceremonies. Most get a Hebrew name recognizing the memory of a deceased family member. Customarily, the child is known by a first and second name, each of which may honor the memory of a separate person, followed by a parents name. Through the generational intertwining of these names, the tapestry of Jewish history is woven. Look around the tablets gracing the walls of our sanctuary. They tell the story of the history of Congregation Sons of Israel. Their descendants make up the Temple Israel of today.
What is the relevance for us? I found a kernel in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s anthology: I asked for Wonder. Heschel wrote: “Judaism is not only the adherence to particular doctrines or observances, but primarily living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present…. It is not a doctrine, an idea, a faith, but the covenant between God and the people. Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community. What we do as individuals is a trivial episode; What we attain as Israel causes us to become a part of eternity.”
So it is my fervent hope for this secular New Year that you will find fulfillment in some new aspect of synagogue or Jewish life, and when your name is called, you will feel comfortable standing up like Moses and saying: “Hineni!” “Here I am!”