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Parshas Shemos (5773)

The Book of Names?

This week, in synagogues all around the world, we begin reading the second book of the Hebrew Bible called Sefer Shemos (lit. the “Book of Names”) in Hebrew, and referred to in English as the “Book of Exodus” or, simply, “Exodus”. It is called Sefer Shemos because the second book starts off with the Torah enumerating the names of the seventy souls who went down to Egypt with our forefather Jacob.

One has to wonder why this book – which deals primarily with such prominent events as the Egyptian exile, the story of the Exodus, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and the building of the Tabernacle in the desert as a dwelling place for G-d’s Divine Presence – is named after a seemingly minor and insignificant event as the listing of the names of the Jewish people who went to Egypt. At least let it be called Sefer HaGeulah, the “Book of Redemption”, or something like that, just as it’s called “Exodus” in English.

I believe that the Torah is teaching us here a valuable lesson about Jewish survival and continuity through its choice of name for the second book. You see, names - and I mean specifically our Jewish names - are more important than we think. In fact, without having distinctly Jewish names, the Jews in Egypt would never have merited leaving Egypt and witnessing the Revelation at Mt. Sinai and the building of the Tabernacle.

The Midrash teaches that the Jewish people in Egypt were able to maintain their identity and uniqueness even as they were surrounded by a morally degenerate and depraved culture - thus enabling them to be redeemed as a nation and to make their Exodus from Egypt - because for all the 210 years that they lived in Egypt they retained their Hebrew names, their Hebrew language, and their distinctly Jewish mode of dress and did not adopt the names, language and fashions of their host country.

So we see how important Hebrew names were during our ancestor's stay in Egypt as a way of identifying themselves as Jews. And this is equally important in our own times when assimilation and intermarriage are gradually diminishing the Jewish people, and when we have very few guarantees that our own grandchildren will remain Jewish.

So long as we carry our Sheim Yisrael Kadosh - our special, holy Jewish name - we are guaranteed to be constantly reminded of who we are as Jews and of our special Jewish mission and destiny here on earth. And this is especially true if we don’t just “have a Jewish name” that we pull out and dust off when we are called up to the Torah and on other such infrequent occasions, but are actually called by our Hebrew name at all times ("uh, could you spell that for me, please?"), except when we’re at work when we have no choice but to use the English name that we have. Do you see the difference between the two and how whichever name we go by and identify with can impact greatly on who we are and how we define ourselves?

And even if we decide that since we aren’t living on a kibbutz in the Negev – but are in predominantly non-Jewish North America where everybody goes by their English name – we simply can’t call our children Yaakov, Rivkah, Avrohom and Yael, at the very least we should be reminding them of their Jewish names as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the majority of Jews today neglect their Hebrew names entirely (some don’t even give one to their children, and some never got one themselves), and, by so doing, have lost a powerful tool in the Torah’s arsenal of weapons in the fight against intermarriage and assimilation, often with tragic results for them and their children.

I once heard a rabbi suggest an interesting interpretation of a very strange blessing that we traditionally give the parents of a baby boy who was just circumcised. After the Bris, all who are present say: “K’sheim she’nichnas la’bris … Just as he [the newborn baby] has entered into the Covenant [of circumcision], so may he enter into Torah study, into Chuppah [the wedding canopy], and into good deeds.”

(They tell a joke about a groom who started walking down the aisle to the Chuppah wearing only a diaper, and crying on top of his lungs. The people asked him what he was doing. He explained: “At my Bris, everyone wished my parents that just as I entered into the circumcision, so should I enter into the Chuppah!”)

The question is why do we wish the parents this blessing at this particular juncture in the child’s life? I mean, why don’t we say to the parents at the kid’s Bar-Mitzvah: “Just as your son has entered into the age of manhood and obligation, so, too, should he enter into Torah study, etc.?

The rabbi answered that, tragically, for many Jews today, the Bris is the last place that the baby’s Hebrew name will be used – that is, of course, until he dies, when the name will be used again on the coffin and the tombstone. So we wish the parents that just as they “used” the newborn baby’s name today at the circumcision, so, too, should they use it for Torah study, for the wedding (the bride’s and groom’s proper Jewish names are written in the Kesubah, or traditional Jewish marriage contract), and for good deeds – and not for us to have to wait until his death for it to be used again.

May we all merit to use and to cherish our special Hebrew names and use them well. Amen.

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