What’s in a name? | Parashat Shemot

Rabbi Johanna M. Hershenson | Temple Beth Tikvah, Oregon, USA

This week, in our annual Torah reading cycle, we open the second book of the Torah, Exodus. Genesis has narrated our coming into being as an identifiable Jewish people. From the emergence of life as we know it, to the parents of all humanity, to questions about how we might behave better in society, to Abraham who leaves all he knows to begin afresh. Isaac’s story teaches us that human beings are far from perfect and that the mistakes we each make have implications and consequences that filter down through generations of descendants. Jacob and Joseph bring our emerging nation into Egypt, setting the scene for redemption from slavery, forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and revelation of Torah itself.

In Hebrew, the Book of Exodus is called Shemot. It is the first substantial word of the first line of the book: These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…  The Hebrew name of the book means names.

Our story of redemption from slavery begins with our capacity to remember the names of those who went down into Egypt with Jacob: his sons and their sons, and so on. The rabbis of the midrash note that our redemption begins with our own conduct while we are living in a strange and foreign land.

Because of four things, Israel was redeemed from Egypt:
1. They did not change their names, or
2. Their language
3. They did not speak maliciously
4. They were not promiscuous. (Vayikra Rabbah 32)

They did not change their names, or their language. The rabbis indicate in this teaching that the names we give our children and the language we speak say something about who we are, in modern language, how we identify.  So long as the ancient Hebrews held their names and language in tact, they remained identifiable to one another, to the Egyptians, and to God.

Shared identity bonds people to one another; we become an us in relation to a them. While shared identity contributes to our sense of belonging, it can also be used to exclude others.  It feels good to be amongst our own, and yet, if we are only amongst our own it becomes difficult to love our neighbors. We lose touch with who they are, what their concerns and interests are, and how we might partner to make the world a better place.

The rabbis indicate that it is not the ancient Hebrews’ attachment to their names and language, alone, that makes them worthy of redemption. They also refrain from speaking maliciously and being promiscuous. Holding on to our names and our language does not mean presuming we are better than anybody else. Even when we find it difficult to understand others, we do not malign them; we do not demonize them.

And while we may find the customs and ideas of others intriguing and attractive, we only flirt with them. We do not give ourselves over to them completely. We adapt to time and place, and expand our thinking, yet we remain Jewish.

Our continuity as an identifiable people may very well rely on the same principled practices that merited the ancient Hebrews redemption from slavery in Egypt: giving our children Jewish names, learning and using Hebrew language, inclusivity, and integrity.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).