Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of December 19 – December 25, 2010

“Why Names”

by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz,’07

This week we begin the book of Shemot (names). The first words of the book,v’eileh ha’shemot (‘and these are the names’) reintroduces the names of the families that came down to Egypt, the ancestors of the people who will, in this book, find their identity and become the Jewish nation. The first letter, vav, (‘and’) reminds us that this is part of a continuing story.

This is a transformation story, which begins: “These are the names of Israel’s sons who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family” (Shemot 1:1). But Jacob and Israel are the same man! Remember that in Breishit 32:27-28 Jacob wrestles with a man in the middle of the night, and is told: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with G-d and with humans and have overcome.” We recall this each time we enter a synagogue and sing: “Mah tovu ohalecha, Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5). Ya’akov’s tents have become, after his transformation into Israel, holy places where the Shechina (miSHKENotecha) dwells.

In the ancient Middle East, stele, a stone or wooden slab, recorded the names of rulers and their genealogies: names of enemies were obliterated. Psalm 34:17 reports that even G-d does this: “The face of the Lord is set against evildoers, to erase their names from the earth”. Is this why there is no record of Joseph in the histories of Egypt, despite his success at saving the Egyptian people from starvation? When, a few verses later, we are told “A king arose who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8), perhaps Joseph’s name had been obliterated. If your name is not recorded, you are not remembered.

Rashi tells us that G-d enumerates the names of the seventy who are brought down to Egypt, comparing them to the stars that G-d brings out Isaiah 40:26 “He brings out their host by number: He calls them by name

In Jewish tradition, names have both meaning and power. In Ashkenazi tradition, children are named after a loved one who has died, perpetuating that person’s memory. When children are brought into the covenant, they are given a Hebrew name: until one has a name; one doesn’t really exist as a member of the tribe. When one converts to Judaism, there is a public announcement: “The person shall be known in Israel as …..”.

If one is gravely ill, folk tradition suggests a name change, hoping to “fool the angel of death”, or additional names associated with healing are added to the sick person’s given name. The traditional unveiling ceremony, when the name of a loved one is seen on the gravestone for the first time, is a painful but important milestone in the path of grieving. The names of the sons of Israel are inscribed in specific order on the Ephod (breastplate of decision) worn by the High Priest when he enters the sanctuary (Shemot 28:29): these names gave the Ephod legitimacy and power. The Jewish mystical tradition of using angelic or Divine names for healing or magic continued, perhaps the most prominent example being Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name.

One way to refer to G-d is HaShem…the Ultimate Name. Martyrdom is known as ‘kiddush haShem’; ‘sanctification of the Name’. Since according to Breishit 1:27, we are all created in the image of G-d, “b’tzelem Elohim”, each of us is created in the image of that Name.

This week, may that Name, and each of our names, be blessed with peace.

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