Shemot: What's in a name?

BIBLICAL WORD STUDY Torah Portion  Shemot Exodus 1:1–6:1. Names and Redemption.

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism טהוניה רובל ובן זוגה יניב בן משה כתבו אות בספר התורה של עם ישראל
טהוניה רובל ובן זוגה יניב בן משה כתבו אות בספר התורה של עם ישראל
צילום: PR

The book of Exodus which describes the first great redemption is called in Hebrew the book of Names ( Sefer Shemot);

”And these are the names ( Shemot)  of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came:”( Exodus 1:1) .

Clearly the biblical text begins with names as a way to indicate that the concept of “names” carries great significance and relevance to the Redemption story. Furthermore we shall see that those names that we carry  are imbued with great potential for spiritual power and change.

We read regarding Abraham the following" Avraham ;”No longer will you be called Avram; your name will be Avraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”(Genesis 17:5).

Regarding Sarah we read "And G-d said to Abraham, "Your wife Sarai-you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, and I will bless her, and she will become [a mother of] nations; kings of nations will be from her. "( ibid :15-16).

When Jacob achieves his spiritual role and purpose we read “And G-d said to him, your name is Yaacov (Jacob); no longer shall you be called Yaacov, but Israel shall be your name; and He called his name Israel. (Genesis 35:10) 


In fact throughout the Tanach we read of prophets giving their children names as a way of making a prophetic declaration.

Clearly we can see that in the Biblical and spiritual context , the giving and choosing of names cannot be understood as being something that is arbitrary .

When parents give names to their  children ,at times ,they think that they either read or heard something that moved them to name their child in a certain way. In our tradition it was also a way to give honor to a deceased loved one. Yet in fact their choice of a name is not simply a whim or desire. The naming of a child is in fact a prophetic inspiration.

Without always being aware , parents give the child the exact name that was destined for that child. The Holy Ari teaches that the name the parents choose for their baby is actually a concept called a Nevuah Ketana- 'a small prophecy. That name that is chosen  in fact defines the child's potential, direction or ,on the other hand ,his or her challenge.

This understanding all begins in the book of Genesis where we read the following;

"And out of the ground Hashem G-d formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them; and whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof. (Genesis 2:19)". The understanding of our sages of this verse has been that whatever Adam called the animal that was to be its spiritual essence.

What then does all this have to do with the Exodus from Egypt. The midrash teaches the folowing"Rav Huna said in the name of Bar-Kappara ( Vayikra Rabba 32:5) that the Israelite people merited the Exodus because they did not change their names , their language, and they did not speak gossip about others and maintained the "laws" of forbidden relationships( Arayot).

The last two, mutual respect and the sanctity of relationships were critical tools in maintain a level of sanctity in a world steeped in idolatry and immorality.

The first two, names and language,  were related  to the processof retaining our identity. The Hebrew language defined our relationship as a people. The names we carried defined the essence of our individual identity.

What, then,  in essence is Exile or Galut. It is a state of erosion. It is a period of existence wherein the values , the dreams and the identity of a people becomes diminished and at times erased.

In the Exile of our days the destructive forces of that exile are damaging not only the people of Israel but the whole world as well. It is those damaging forces of physical and spiritual exile that the world is experiencing today wherein the fragments of the pieces of our being are being diminished and erased .

The remedy is found, as it always is, in the text of the Torah

And these are the names (Shemot)  of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came:”(Exodus 1:1)

In order to survive the onslaught of spiritual exile we must reconnect to our names and the destiny it hints at, both personal and corporate. We must also refocus on the family unit as a building block of survival” each man and his household “. Finally we must remember that each challenge in our lives including exile,  are not a trap, or even a punishment but rather a challenge and an incentive to become the “ name” that we are meant to be.

Lerefuat Kol HaPtzuim ve Hacholim

Lerefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther