פרשת שמות, תש״פ
Parshat Sh'mot, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, January 18th, 2020
What’s In A Name?
Dearbhla Kelly, one of my favorite yoga teachers in Los Angeles, has a simple method of gaining her students’ trust. Dearbhla makes sure that, by five minutes into class, she knows the name and at least one thing about each student in the room. And each time she sees any of us around the studio, she calls us by name and asks us, personally, how we are doing. In a Los Angeles yoga studio with hundreds of students pouring in and out each day, Dearbhla’s feat of learning names is quite significant, and it shows in her students’ responses. During each of Dearbhla’s classes, she challenges her students to try poses or transitions we might never attempt otherwise, and we do it because of our conviction that our teacher cares about who we are and what we do. Each time I attended her class, Dearbhla reminded me again and again that it feels really good to know someone has made the effort to learn my name.
Our Torah portion begins, ואלא שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה… and these are the names of the people Israel that came from Egypt…and then, of course, we have a list of names. Our parsha and this entire new book of Torah we’re beginning today are both called shmot, “names.” In the next couple of months, we’ll be reading about the ten plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, the Ten Commandments, the golden calf, Mount Sinai, and the building of the Tabernacle, and yet, our book is labeled primarily by our Biblical author’s obsession with names. Throughout Tanakh, we have multiple genealogies and descriptions of why our characters’ names are what they are. In just our parshah today, Moshe is named as such because, Pharaoh’s daughter says, משיתיהו מן המים, I drew him from the water. Moshe’s son is named Gershom, because Moshe was a ger sham, a stranger there, in Egypt. But why is mentioning names so essential, essential enough that it acts as an introduction to our most action-packed book in the Torah?
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the eighteenth century founder of Hasidism, gives a charming, simple answer. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that when one person calls another’s name, it has the same spiritual effect as when one person physically touches another. That name-calling is what keeps the people Israel going on a spiritual level, even in during their physically degrading time as slaves in Egypt. For the Ba’al Shem Tov, the spiritual touch of calling one’s name gives the same sort of comfort and support as an embrace or a hand on a shoulder. When someone calls our individual names, that someone reminds us that we are cared about for whom we are as individuals. The sound of our names reminds us that what we say and do truly matters; at least someone is paying attention.
Hearing the sound of our own and others’ names adds definition, value systems, gratitude, and responsibility to the ways in which we view the world. Moshe David Cassuto, a twentieth century Italian-Israeli professor, writes that our Biblical focus on names teaches us to give credit where credit is due. These names that occur in our Torah give us concrete examples of individuals from whom to learn and to source our ideals. They teach us that there were real individuals who went through enormous amounts of effort to get us where we are as a people and as a religion today. We have not achieved our successes, or even our failures, on our own. Knowing that our names may someday be put on such a list, for good or for not so good, our names give us a reason to live up to certain standards. When we work hard for our values, and we see our name in an article or a book or even hear our name mentioned by a stranger, we can know that our name, in itself, represents a tool for change in the world. When we read that someone we admire, either a close relative or some celebrity, supports a certain cause, we’re often inspired to support that cause too.
In the same vein, when Cassuto asks why Moshe so badly wants to know God’s name, Cassuto answers himself, essentially, that God’s name is important for both God’s and Moshe’s publicity. The people Israel need a consistent name to call God, so that everyone can be on the same page in the journey towards Exodus. Moshe needs a famous name to back him up, in urging the people Israel to come with him and to support him in his fight to convince Pharaoh to let his people go!
Cassuto writes that for Moshe’s ancient Middle Eastern society, אין לו שם איננו, ומה שנקרא בשם ישנו במציאות. If a person or object doesn’t have a name, it does not exist. And anything that is called by a name exists in reality. When we are called by our individual names, we are reminded that what we have said and what we have done has warranted our identification. And in our names, we too hold the memories, values, and interests of those who have named us. Our parents might have named us after a beloved relative or favorite Biblical character, and our teachers may have given us titles to show how much we’ve achieved and learned - Doctor, Rabbi, Reverend, Professor. Perhaps we chose our own name, or perhaps we chose our personal variation on our name for specific places and people.
I know that I was named after a great grandfather, Sydney, whom I’m told was a wonderful pianist, and I’m proud of that name and carry it in the music I practice. However, when I saw Toy Story as a little girl, the villain, Sid, a kid who mutilates toys just for fun, made me ashamed of that nickname. To this day, I choose not to be called Sid, as a reminder of my simple childhood wish to be a caring and compassionate individual, the opposite of Toy Story’s Sid.
For one last Biblical commentator, a Rav Aurbach, this human ability to choose what we’re called is a special gift of human freedom; as long as we are free, we are called by what we say, do, and believe. Perhaps, then, this name-calling is emphasized at the beginning of the Exodus story to solidify our appreciation for our present freedom, our present ability to decide who we are and how we are called.
It’s such a simple idea - names are important. The tricky thing is turning our simple statement into the not-so-simple action of using each other’s names. Since we each know how good it feels to be acknowledged by name, let’s pay it forward and use other’s names, too. I know that I am pretty terrible at the task of remembering names, although being in a small congregation certainly helps. But I’ve tried different techniques to build my name-remembering skill set. It’s easiest for me to remember names if I have a family or life story to match to a face. Every time Rabbi Feivel and I watch a reality show like the Great British Bake-Off, we compete to see who can learn the contestants’ names the most quickly. If anyone has any more name memory techniques, I’m happy to hear them, but whatever technique works for you, here’s my concrete challenge for this Shabbat. This week, there’s no deep, existential digging that needs to be done; I just ask that you learn one new name at Kiddush lunch today, and the next time you see that person, greet him or her with his or her name. If your technique works, try it again next Shabbat or next time you’re at a regular class or social gathering.
In our parasha, when Moshe asks God for God’s preferred name, God answers אהיה אשר אהיה - I will be who or what I will be. And throughout the rest of the parsha, God makes promises based on God’s name - I will be - אהיה -with you and for you, the people Israel. I will be - אהיה - with you, Moshe, when you speak and when you decide what to do. Elsewhere in this parsha and throughout Tanakh, God is identified by the letters, י–ה–ו–ה, letters that in different combinations form infinite versions of the verb to be, including אהיה, I will be. When God explains God’s name, God expounds upon God’s historical relationship with Moshe’s ancestors and shows Moshe that God is currently and will always be present in the world. In our parshah, through naming Godself, God sets up a model for a personal name as a mechanism for goal-setting and definition of concrete identity. As this name of yud heh vav heh is unpronounceable, we often call God HaShem, the Name, indicating that our God has the perfect name for who God is and what God does, a name that encompasses eternity and infinite possibility. We too, can treasure and our names and the names others have been given and chosen as symbols of who we have been, who we are, and what we aim to accomplish.