“What’s in a Name?”
Sofia, David, Sarah, Daniel, Rina, Ronen, Beatrice, Benjamin, Miriam, Aaron, Moses. . . the choice of first name often depends on the mother tongue, religion and gender of the child. A first name may reflect a tradition, (be it family, national or regional.) A name can be given because the parents believe it has the most appropriate ‘meaning’, or suits the appearance or describes the characteristics of the child. It may also suit the wishes or expectations of their parents for them. It may even be part of a political or ideological program.
I continue to wonder why I was named after my great uncle Jack, a cobbler his entire life but otherwise without any family fame. I doubt my love of buying shoes is a connection to my namesake. I have a vague recollection of hearing some of great Uncle Jack’s jokes at a family gathering but no legacy there as well – I can’t remember or tell a joke for beans.
Here’s what I’d like to credit from my ancestor: that he labored long hours to make a living and support a family, that his meager earnings kept him humble but never zealous or jealous, that he understood the essential and functional need for shoes, and here I must conjure up the thousands of shoes extracted from the concentration camp victims and exhibited at Auschwitz or the rows and rows of bronzed shoes of 20,000 murdered Hungarian Jews lining the banks of the Danube River as a memorial. These shoes symbolize life dehumanized and snuffed out.
But, shoes are also empowerment – they enable every person who is able to walk to step on any surface without hurting themselves; their sound reverberates when people march for justice, and here I am reminded of the great theologian and Jewish social conscience of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who cried out when marching alongside Martin Luther King Junior on the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on March 21, 1965: “I am praying with my feet!” Shoes remind us that if we are able to use our feet, we advocate and walk for others who may not be able to do so. We do not just “be” in life, but we move ahead step by step, irrespective of time or place, towards a goal, a greater meaning, not for something more, but for something better.
Thus, names contain power. They give things meaning. They bring us meaning. For example, from a Jewish perspective, in Genesis, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was. God named it into existence. Next, God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” And there was. God called it sky. And God called the dry ground land. From that land, God made a human. God made Adam, which we understand as the word for “earth.” Then God gave the power to name to this first human. Adam then named the animals. And Adam named Eve, which we translate as the “mother of all”. And that power on naming has been given to us.
And now, we circle back to the beginning of the Exodus narrative, and it title: NAMES, an allusion to the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob 4 generations before, and whose names are listed in the first few verses of the Book of Exodus. Here is what scholar Aviva Zornberg has to say about the irony in naming this week’s parsha NAMES: “The names that begin and entitle the book are a marker for loss, as the narrative begins to tell of the nameless. Moses’ parents are conspicuously unnamed at first mention as a ‘man from the house of Levi’ and a ‘daughter of Levi’, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ adoptive mother (I think you all know the story of Moses’ birth – from Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments or from the animated Prince of Egypt cinematic spectaculars). To Zornberg, names and language have failed in the reality of the enslavement of the Israelites – the suffering, the harsh labor, the bitterness of each person’s days, which, in despair elicits no protest, no audible groan, no expression of awareness, of memory, of outrage, or even hope in the text. Zornberg further bases her interpretation on the 4 consecutive verbs of verse 6 of chapter 1 that describe the fertility of the Israelites and the population explosion among them, as a direct threat to Pharaoh. One of those verbs is sheretz, meaning to swarm, and the very same verb describing the lowly reptiles in the creation story. Here, the verb names the absence of power and the dehumanization of the Israelite slaves.
To be fair, the more accepted and popular take on the absence of names before Moses comes onto the scene is again an irony. Pharaoh, the oppressor and the enemy, is the first to name the Israelites as a people or nation in verse 9, as we imagine him shuddering at their numbers as he watches them from his palace windows teaming around the tar pits and building up his garrison cities of Pithom and Raamses. The Israelite slaves, identified as a people rather than individuals, in the mind of our rabbinic sages, is the first step or mindset to seeing the greater mission of following God’s lead, of redemption, and of the establishment of a nation. From now on and throughout the 40 years of wandering in the desert, the actions of individuals trump their individual identities (with the exceptions, of course, of the leadership triumvirate – Miriam, Aaron and Moses).
In another paradox of sorts, the anonymity and silence of the enslaved Israelites brings on more and more babies. The more they were oppressed, the more they increased. The unbearable weight of Egypt’s burdens only served to make them reproduce at a faster rate. Today we might exclaim: “Who would want to bring more children into such a harsh and hopeless society?” Why did they choose to procreate? Did the slaves really think that they needed to prepare for a brighter future? Did they need a distraction from their all-consuming harsh labor – no kidding! Or, was each and every birth an act of non-violent protest against unjust servitude. And, here, biblical scholar Nehama Leibowitz (z”l, may her memory be a blessing) clarifies. She quotes medieval Jewish commentator Rambam (also a famous Moses) that the Israelites in the time of Joseph were welcomed foreign residents into Egypt by royal permission. The biblical text nowhere records that the Egyptians changed the status of the Israelites from foreign residents into slaves. The authoritarian Pharaoh of the later Exodus narrative not only unlawfully treated the Israelites as slaves but by his example and influence, we read in verse 13: The Egyptians made the children of Israel serve (that is, “slave away”) with rigor. All the Egyptian people (not just Pharoah and his compliant cabinet) had acculturated the practices of their cruel and tyrannical leader – sounds familiar!
There is a reason for naming, or calling a spade a spade. Revealing, exposing, enlightening is what comes to mind when we give someone or something a name.
As I just read from the Torah scroll this evening, the daughter of pharaoh called baby Moses, Moshe, because m’shitihu – she drew him out of the water. In Hebrew, grammar counts when it comes to meaning. Moshe is a present tense verb and not time, translated as “the one who draws out.” Taken at face value, and because it’s a masculine verb, Moses’ is named for his destiny – that he will be the one to take out his enslaved kin from their abyss. Pretty powerful stuff!! I wonder how destiny figures in our own names!
What else contributes to the power of a name? It seems to me that a true and sincere leader must go through a trial by fire before being labeled as such. For Moses, it was his encounter with the Divine at the burning bush. The s’neh, or bush, a word derived from Greek or Aramaic, means thorny, blackberry, or given to blindness – all unpleasant traits and unworthy perhaps of a Divine presence. And Moses even had to take off his shoes, another sign of disempowerment (according to my Uncle Jack). A scraggly bush, a shepherd stripped of his protective shoes, a divine presence that had voice but had no form. Somehow, through a verbal negotiation with God, Moses accepts his calling, and returns to Egypt to ignite the Exodus, lead the way, and make a name for himself as the one who would enable the People Israel to fulfill God’s covenant to inherit the Promised Land and build a society there, based on justice and righteousness – we are working on it, as I speak, and not very successfully.
By comparison, Martin Luther King Junior endured a much longer trial by fire: He was arrested over twenty times for protesting. He was the object of several violent attacks, both to his person and his property. He received threatening phone calls, his home was bombed and set afire, and he was even stabbed. He persisted, spurred on by his faith and his absolute belief equality for all. We associate his great name with a sustaining vision of justice through non-violence, and a society of hope and fulfillment for all. His hopefulness must have been like the Israelite women in Egypt, who kept having babies despite their servitude and the midwives who protected the male babies from Pharaoh’s infanticide. Indeed, MLK himself likened the plight of Black Americans to Israelite slaves and their ultimate redemption.
The Exodus narrative helped King’s supporters comprehend the past, present, and future of their movement; it led them to understand that, if they fought against the discriminatory society of the past and present, God would give them a future just like with the Israelites.
In truth, both ventures, that of the Jews and that of King’s followers, are a long work in progress, and not to be compared in their uniqueness and intensity, albeit there is enough antisemitism and racism to fill up the spaces in which we exist together.
Perhaps the takeaway for us is that naming (ideas, things, persons) is an act of listening and becoming aware, and an opportunity to show compassion, to pass on the name to another in order to enlighten them, and to act on the name in the name of humanizing the world and the life that has been gifted to us. Keyn yihiye ratzon – may it be so. Shabbat shalom!