Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The parsha is called Shemot, Names. It is deceptive. It begins with a list of the names of the Children of Israel. Not an inauspicious beginning. Yet it then seems to veer off. We begin to encounter names that suggest either, or both, unhappiness and disenfranchisement.

The next set of names are of two cities, Pitom and Ramses, which the Children of Israel were forced to build and rebuild. According to Rashi and the Midrash, the cities were continually being rebuilt because they were constructed on unstable land, causing them to sink or crumble, which is what the Egyptians intended. The Egyptians wanted it to be pointless, spirit-crushing work.

Next we are told the names of the midwives for the Children of Israel. Pharaoh commanded these women to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. The Torah names these women as Shifra and Puah. The Gamara in Sota 11b asserts that these women were actually Moshe’s mother Yocheved and either his sister Miriam or his future sister-in-law, Elisheva.

When describing Moshe’s birth and placement in the Nile, the Torah does not mention the names of his father, mother or sister. Neither is the name his parents gave him. The name Moshe is bestowed by Pharaoh’s daughter after she draws him from the river. There is a good deal of apologetics concerning whether “Moshe” is a Hebrew or Egyptian name. It is undisputed that it means to draw forth and was given to him by the daughter of the man who sought his death.

In the Gemara, again Sota, page 12a, Rabbi Meir relates that Moshe’s given name was Tov. Rabbi Yehuda maintains that is was Tuviyah. In another Gemara, Megillah 13a, six other names are attributed to Moshe, and the Midrash Rabbah for Vayikra (I:3) suggests a total of 10 names for Moshe. Yet the only name the Torah ever uses is the one given by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh. The Midrash Rabbah for Shemot (1:26) explains that this exclusive use of the name Pharaoh’s daughter selected demonstrates how great is the reward for kindness.

When two Israelite men who are fighting cause Moshe to realize that his killing of an Egyptian is public knowledge, Moshe flees Egypt. As the Torah does not tell us the names of these two Israelites, the next names we encounter are also foreign. They are the name of Moshe’s future Midianite wife and father-in-law. The name Moshe gives to his first son is the embodiment of disenfranchisement. The child is named Gershom, meaning: “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

During his first encounter with Hashem, Moshe, at the Burning Bush on Har Sinai, asks what he is to tell the Children of Israel if they ask what is the name of the God of their fathers who sent Moshe. Rather than reveal a name to Moshe, Hashem replies enigmatically: “”I will be that which I will be.’ And He [God] said, ‘So shall you say to the Children of Israel, I Will Be has sent me to you.’” It is not until the beginning of next parsha that Hashem conveys to Moshe a name. Similarly, the Torah tells us that Moshe began his return to Egypt with his “sons” but does not tell us his second child’s name. It will not be until Parshat Yitro that we learn that the boy’s name is Eliezer, meaning “God has been my help.”

Why the blatant concealment of some names while other names seem to suggest a distancing from our roots, distancing us from the names of the Children of Israel with which the parsha begins?

Names, labels, give order to our reality. Bestowing names is a manifestation of authority. An act of mastery or control. The first task Hashem assigned to Adam Harishon was naming each species of animal in the world. Names can reveal an individual’s inner qualities and abilities, as the Gemara in Brachot 7b suggests. Changing one’s name can change their destiny, as when Hashem changes Sarai to Sara as the Gemara in Rosh HaShana 16b recounts. The Gemara in Yoma 83b recounts that Rabbi Meir and later Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi would examine the names of innkeepers to gain insight into their character.

Parshat Shemot begins the second book of Torah, the Book of Redemption. The concealment of given names, the substitution of names, reminds us that we are not in control of our redemption. We can try to exercise control, as when we give a name, but just as names can change, control can be lost. We may conceive of things in one fashion, name them, and then events, or the things themselves, change and hence their names must change. Ultimate control of destiny, ultimate control of our redemption, is in the hands of Hashem.

Similarly, the appearance of names suggesting a disconnect with the past, or a separation from our expectations, reminds us of the limitations of our understanding. We must disassociate ourselves from our assumptions. Who would have conceived that the savior would have emerged from the house of Pharaoh? Who would have thought that the daughter of the monster to seeking to kill us would save the man who would help save us? Who would imagine that Hashem would appear to Moshe not in some great natural wonder but in a lowly thorn bush, a plant unwanted by most?

In the parsha, Moshe himself learns of the need to shed expectations and simply trust in Hashem. At the parsha’s end, Moshe is in a state of despair, perceiving that the Israelites’ plight has gotten worse. Moshe expected that upon arriving in Egypt he would deliver Hashem’s message and things would improve. Not so. Things occur only on Hashem’s schedule and in manners we cannot comprehend. It is only in the next week’s parsha, after Moshe’s preconceptions have been shattered, that Hashem reveals His name.

Although we must make an effort, striving to order and perfect ourselves, our children and our world, ultimately success depends on Hashem. This is the lesson the Torah conveys by delaying telling us of the name of Moshe’s younger child. Only until the parsha in which the Aseret Hadibrot are bestowed do we learn that the boy’s name is Eliezer, God Will Help or God Has Helped or God Is My Help.

Hashem’s help to us comes through His Torah. His Torah is the guide. Through adherence to Torah, through reliance on Torah and not our own cognition, we can help speed the redemption that Hashem will bring about. That is the revealed message of this parsha and this sefer.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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