Jewish Journal


January 2, 2013

What is in a Name?

Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)


This week we begin a new book of Torah — Shemot in Hebrew and Exodus in English. While the word “exodus” means “going out,” the word “shemot” means “names.” So, it should not be surprising that we are sent through a maze of names and journeys in this week’s parasha.

The portion opens with a series of interactions among Israelites who notably remain nameless. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. And their oppressor, Pharaoh, has declared that if an Israelite woman gives birth to a baby boy, he must be killed. And yet, “a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman” (Exodus 2:1). These two unnamed Levites then give birth to a son, who is also not named. The mother is enamored with her newborn and she hides him for three months. When concealing him becomes impossible, the mother takes the boy and puts him in a tiny basket and hides him in the reeds of the Nile River. The boy’s sister, also unnamed, follows the mother, witnesses her desperate actions, and watches over her brother’s basket.

Why conceal their names? Surely, the four had names by which they were known in their community. Indeed, we come to know these names later in Exodus. Surely, they knew one another not only by their given names, but also by myriad nicknames and pet names. Yet, the Torah reveals not a single one in these opening verses.

Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby in his basket and exclaims, “This must be a Hebrew child” (Exodus 2:6). Her label for the child echoes exactly what we know of him. He was a Hebrew, the son of slaves.

The absence of names in the beginning of this story suggests just how dehumanizing life had become for the Israelites. Stripped of their rights, their agency, their freedom and their identities, the Israelites were truly in bondage.

In a series of twists and turns, Moses is then nursed by his mother, who is called his “wet nurse,” and is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, who is called his “mother.” When Pharaoh’s daughter chooses a name for the boy, she chooses a name recalling the journey that brought him to her, “She named him Moshe, explaining, ‘Because I pulled him out of the water’ ” (Exodus 2:10). Moses comes of age in Pharaoh’s palace, separated from his people and no longer called “Hebrew.”

It is a journey of sorts that returns Moses to his foundational identity as “Hebrew.” Torah tells us that Moses “went out to his kinsfolk” (Exodus 2:11) and sees an Egyptian beat a Hebrew slave. It seems this act of “going out” among his people awakens something dormant in Moses. When he leaves the confines of Pharaoh’s palace and enters into the midst of his people, Moses seems to remember his original name was “Hebrew child.” He seems to remember that he, too, began his life stripped of identity and freedom. Moses breaks free from the identity forced upon him, recognizes the ultimate injustice in the act he is witnessing and kills the Egyptian taskmaster.

After another such incident, Moses flees from Egypt and travels to Midian. Moses’ remembered name leads him on a journey, just as a journey once led him to his name.

One day in Midian, while tending to his father-in-law’s flock, an angel of God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. God knows the young man’s name and knows just how to reach him: “Moses, Moses,” God calls (Exodus 3:4). From the bush, God tells Moses who he really is: not a slave, not a Midianite shepherd, not a child of the Egyptian palace, but a redeemer of the Israelite people. 

Moses responds by asking God’s name and God answers elusively, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exodus 3:14-15). Translated into the future tense, we see that God’s name is in and of itself a journey.

As the Israelites’ conditions worsen, they cry out to God (Exodus 2:23). In response to this cry, God remembers the covenant made with the Israelites so many generations ago and once again calls them “My people” (Exodus 5:1).

It is when Moses receives his new identity and when God reclaims the people as God’s own that the real story of journeys and names begins. No longer nameless Hebrew slaves, the Israelites are ready for a new future. No longer nameless Hebrew slaves, they take their first steps on their journey toward freedom.

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation.

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