Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of January 3 – 9, 2010

“What’s in a Name?”

by Cantor Eva Robbins, ’04

Why call this Parshah Shemot, ”names,” when the majority of the story is about our historical servitude and the tactical approach to change the course of our history? The reason is because names are a window into the soul. The Alter Rebbe teaches that a name represents life-force, a channel that allows the inner nature to be expressed. It paints a picture of inner essence, character and how we come to know ourselves and others, and we must come to understand the nature of both G-d and Moshe, as expressed in their names, who are partners in rescuing the Hebrew slaves.

We learn that Moses is named by Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds him floating in the Nile. She calls him Moshe because he was “drawn from water.” Why is Moses nameless for the first three weeks of his life? Why is the leader of our people named by an Egyptian and not a Hebrew and how does Moses come to understand his Egyptian name – is it a reflection of his past or is it a prophecy of his future? We know that the Nile is a place of death and filled with the blood of the first born Hebrew males. It represents one of the Egyptian Gods and is the source of the pain and suffering for the Hebrew slaves. And yet, mayim, “water,” is a symbol of spiritual purity and transformation from one state of being to another, as in our Mikvah practice. Water is also the place from which we all come, the amniotic fluid that holds and contains us in safety. It becomes the place of our people’s birth, the Sea of Reeds, where we begin our journey to people-hood. And it ultimately prevents Moshe from going to the Promised Land, as he ‘draws’ it forth with anger in the desert.

And what of G-d’s name? Torah continually uses two names for G-d, YudKayVavKay (the ineffable and awesome name) and Elohim. Yet, when Moses asks G-d, “Who shall I say has sent me”, G-d answers “Eh-he-yeh Asher Eh-he-yeh (I will be that which I will be)…This is My Name forever…My remembrance from generation to generation.” (Ex. 3:13-14-15) Commentaries of the mystics teach that the Tetragrammaton represents the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the transcendent presence of the Holy One and Elohim represents the Shechinah, the imminent and indwelling presence within physical existence. It is YudKayVavKay that sees the afflictions of the people (“Adonai Rao Raiti”) but it is Elohim that answers Moses with this new name, Eh-he-yah. This name is a conduit between heaven above (YudKayVavKay) and the world below (Elohim). This is the name G-d wants the people to know so they understand that G-d is about action and transformation, an inspirational presence as Psalm 91 expresses, “I will be with him in his trouble” and the text itself states “Ki Eh-he-yeh emach,” “For I shall be with you.”

As G-d’s name connotes a process, Moshe can be viewed similarly as a leader in the process of the Jewish people. He leads the people from the death of the Nile to their rebirth in the Yam Suf and then, according to Ibn Ezra, their purification in the Mikvah at Sinai and finally, crossing the Jordan River to the Promised Land. The ‘Egyptian’ name prophecies the taking of the ‘Hebrews’ from slavery to freedom and from suffering to redemption.

We are also taught that G-d’s name is the eternal presence that is an ongoing transformative process that will unite all that is ‘heavenly’ possible into an earthly reality. It is a model for our own growth and development, a guide to ‘who we can become’ in the process of living.

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