Torah from Around the World #97

Rabbi Rebecca Lillian,

Lund University

, Lund,
Sweden and Egalitarian Synagogue of Malmo, Malmo, Sweden

What is in a Name?

week’s parasha, like the Second Book of Moses (Exodus) that it opens, is known
as “


,” meaning “names.” Indeed, names play a major role throughout
this very rich portion, from the mundane list of the names of Jacob’s sons at
the start, through God’s revelation of the Divine Name to Moses during the
encounter at the burning bush. It is impossible to come away from the first
chapters of Exodus without calling to question all that we think we know about
the very process of naming.

the opening verse of Exodus, we are reminded that Jacob had two names. He was
also known as Israel, following his nocturnal struggle with a messenger of God
who blessed him with this reminder that Israel is one who struggles with the
Divine. We are also reminded that, while 11 sons of Jacob had come down to
Egypt in search of sustenance during a famine in the region, Joseph was already
down there. What our text does not mention is how Joseph had arrived in Egypt
(his brothers had sold him into slavery) or what he was doing there by the time
his brothers got there (he had become Pharaoh’s right hand man, more powerful
than any son of Israel could have imagined.)

noting that following the deaths of Joseph’s entire generation the Israelites
were fruitful and filled the land with their offspring, a very compelling
statement is made:

new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph

.” (Shemot 1:8) In other
words, as long as the king of Egypt knew Joseph, or at least of Joseph, all of
Joseph’s kin would do very well in Egypt. The minute that the powers that be
had no knowledge of who Joseph is and how important he had been to the success
and wealth of Egypt, all of his people were viewed as an unwelcome group of
interlopers who might become a fifth column during Egypt’s next war, and who
had to be contained and controlled.

Joseph’s name could so quickly be forgotten by the Pharaoh and his henchmen is
troubling. Our sages wondered a great deal about who this Pharaoh was who did
not know Joseph, and there were rabbinic disputes about it. According to Rav,
this was literally a new king who somehow did not understand that Joseph had
played such a major role in his predecessor’s cabinet. Shmuel says it was not a
new king at all, but that the same old Pharaoh acted as though he did not know
Joseph so that he could get away with enacting new, oppressive decrees against
the Israelites (Talmud Sotah 11a).

first glance, Shmuel’s position seems impossible. Why would this wise rabbi
feel compelled to twist the meaning of the verse to such an odd and complicated
interpretation? I have not found the reasoning that Shmuel used, but I think
that the opening lines of our parasha might contain an insight into
understanding his interpretation. Jacob was not the only one with a double
name. Joseph was given an additional name too. Unlike his father, Joseph is
never referred to by his second name. Perhaps that is because, while Jacob was
named by a Divine Messenger, Joseph got his second name from Pharaoh. Back in
Parashat Miketz, when Joseph saves Pharaoh and all of Egypt by interpreting
Pharaoh’s dreams, the king names him Tzafnat Paneach (Bereshit 41:45). Rashi
understands this name to mean “the explainer of hidden things,” but notes that
the word Paneach does not appear anywhere else in the Scripture.

the time Joseph makes the poignant revelation, “I am Joseph your brother…” is
he really Joseph to anyone but his own family? Perhaps all of Egypt knows him
as Tzafnat Paneach, husband of Asnat and son in law to the Priest of On. Maybe
the reason there arose a king who did not know Joseph was that Joseph was not
known by his Hebrew name in Egypt. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes in

Torah: A Modern Commentary


was the first Hebrew who lived, so to speak, in Diaspora. He became thoroughly
assimilated, adopted the customs of his environment, changed his name, wore
Egyptian clothes, swore by Pharos name (Gen 42:15) and married an Egyptian

if the king did not know Joseph, his children and grandchildren knew their
father to be a Hebrew. Although Joseph embraced the outside world, he never let
go of his identity where it mattered. He gave his sons Hebrew, not Egyptian,
names and before he died, he made his family promise that his bones would be
returned to the land of Israel.

of us who live in the tiny Diasporas of Europe understand what it means to have
a dual identity. More importantly, we comprehend at the most visceral level the
temptation to hide the Jewish aspects when that feels expedient or simpler or
even safer. When the powers that be “don’t know Joseph”—whose fault it is? The
powerful non-Jew, who knows nothing of Jewish customs and culture, or our own,
because we hide behind a non-Jewish name or a Christmas celebration? How do we
“explain the hidden things”? Or, do we keep our Jewish identities hidden?

the Exodus itself is the master narrative of our people, we must not forgot how
we got to Egypt, and how we lived while life for our ancestors was going well
there.  The message of Shemot is not merely how to get out of the narrow
places that constrict us, (the literal meaning of “


”), but also
how to manage those places when we find ourselves in them.

“Each of Us Has a Name,” the Hebrew poet Zelda lists some couplets of how we
are given names. They are not necessarily contradictory titles, for example:

of us has a name/given by our celebrations/and given by our work; Each of us
has a name given by the seasons/and given by our blindness

by Marcia Falk).

learning from Shemot, we might add a respectful addendum to the Zelda’s lesson:

of us has a name,

read from right to left,

other from left to right.

our soul always lies in the middle.

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