Shemot – What’s in a Name?

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Shemot is the name of this week’s Parashah; it is also the name of the second book of the Torah which we are about to start this week. The name Shemot follows the tradition of naming a book or portion after the first significant word – here ve’eleh shemot, ‘and these are the names’.

The name of the previous book, Bereishit (‘in the beginning’), seems clear. Bereishit deals with beginnings: the beginning of the world, of man, of a family, of a faith in a single God…

Does this mean that Shemot is about names? Sure enough, right from the start the parashah lists the names of the sons of Israel who came into Egypt with Jacob to join Joseph, all seventy members of Jacob’s family. Then things get more complicated.

– Soon the name of Joseph is forgotten in Egypt, although he had been Pharaoh’s right hand – ‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph’ (Shemot 1:8)

– We are given the names of the Hebrew midwives – ‘ the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah’ (Shemot 1:15) – but the Midrash tells us that in fact they were no others than Yocheved and Miriam (Moses’ mother and sister).

– Pharaoh has no name and is always designated by his function: ‘a new king’ and Pharaoh.

– Moses is named by Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name we never learn) and whose name (to draw out) parallels the role he will play for God and the Jewish people

– Most important is the passage where Moses asks God about his name, and God answers:

And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? What shall I say unto them?’ And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’ (Shemot 3:13-14)

A name is a connector. When one has a name one can be called; their name makes them real. One of the first things people want to know when they hear of a birth is the name of the baby. Similarly, as a teacher, one of my first tasks is to learn the pupils’ names within a few days so as to be able to call them directly.

Pupils like to be called by their first names and hate it when I am wrong. Fortunately this does not happen too often but I vividly remember two such episodes. Once I got ‘Melody’ mixed up with ‘Harmony’. On another instance, I called a ‘Haicha’, ‘Fatima’. In both cases the girls were frustrated and expressed their discontent. We like to be remembered and acknowledege and being called by our name is part of the recognition process.

However God’s answer, i.e. the name he gives himself, is anything but straightforward. Commentators usually agree that a better translation of the passage quoted above is ‘I will be that which I will be.’ Interestingly, although it is the name God gives for himself, it is one we never use.

So is Shemot really about names? Isn’t it rather about identity, about who we are and who we choose to be? Our identity, both as part of the Jewish nation and as individuals, is never fixed forever. It can disappear or be forgotten but, as God’s name suggests, it can also change and evolve.

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12 thoughts on “Shemot – What’s in a Name?

  1. What an excellent and thought-provoking way in which to start this New Year!

    Names are very important (I think). It’s not uncommon to hear someone say ‘he (or she) looks like a….’ To be followed by their name. We create ideas in our minds as to what a certain name bestows on a person’s manner or characteristics. And I someone infamous in history has a certain first name, it is uncommon for new parents to name their baby with the infamous name, as if their child will be like, or likened to the tyrant, swindler or ‘evil’ person in question. And who amongst us can’t think of a person they didn’t like at school and dislike the name attached to the person?

    • Thank you! Your remark about infamous people made me think of a recent French film (Le prénom) where a man announces to his family that they are going to call their future son Adolf. You can easily imagine the commotion such an announcement provokes.
      And your latest remark reminded me that, as a child, I couldn’t stand the name Nathalie because I didn’t like the two Nathalies in my class!

  2. Thanks for another one of your beautiful and thought-provoking parsha posts!

    On a related note, the Midrash also teaches that although the Children of Israel were assimilated and had descended to the 49th Gate of Impurity in Egypt, they didn’t change three things: their language, their clothing, and… their names.

  3. Pingback: Shemot – a Poem | Ilana-Davita

  4. Pingback: Bookish Weekly Review | Ilana-Davita

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