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Parshas Shemos - …For As His Name Is, So Is He

By Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Posted on 01/04/18

Years ago, in Pittsburgh, I initiated several programs for mentally challenged Jewish youngsters and adults, many living in various state institutions. The inspiration for these programs originated almost entirely from a saintly, fatherly Rabbi Leib Heber z’l who traveled hundreds of miles throughout Western Pennsylvania every Sunday to these various institutions, sometimes with only one Jewish resident each, to share love, sympathy, sensitivity and a cold cut sandwich or two (all lovingly made by Mrs. Heber).  Rabbi Heber was the one and only servant of God tending to the needs of these forlorn Jewish souls.   A sandwich, a smile, perhaps a kiss on the hand, the recitation of the first posuk of Sh’ma – these saintly souls brought grace to these needing Jewish. 


Deservedly honored by the community for his good works, he told the story of how, when he arrived at each facility and approached the reception desk, the names of the two or three individuals he came to see would be announced over the public-address system and they would come to see him in the designated area.  One Sunday, he arrived at a facility, where there happened to be only one Jewish resident left from the original four or five he’d once visited.  As luck would have it, that day the public-address system was not working.  The rabbi sent someone to get Charlene.  She refused.  She pouted.  She cried.  Charlene was only on the second floor.  In fact, in a place where the rabbi could see her from the lobby.  He lovingly called to her to come down.  She refused.  So, the elderly rabbi went upstairs to her.  He put his arm around her. “I’m here for you,” he assured her.  “I have delicious sandwich for you.”   But still, she refused to come down.  After continued cajoling, she burst out sobbing, “My name, my name. You didn’t call my name... you didn’t announce my name!”  


In that story, Rabbi Heber taught us the power of a name.  Even in those we believe to be far removed and out of touch.  They want their names announced on the PA system so that they are assured they are not forgotten, they are known.


“My name, my name…”


* * *


None other than the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that just as when one wants to touch another physically, he holds on to a physical part of the other’s body [his hand], so too connecting to one’s neshama is through a spiritual means.  And what is that means?  What is that connection?   The Ba’al Shem Tov taught it is through calling one’s name, that one’s name is the spiritual connection to his soul.


We believe that a name given to a newborn could reflect the essence of his soul, could be the channel through which the inner forces of his neshama will flow.  It is the reason that such thought is given to names, and to why we never name our children after living relatives. 


Our names are so fundamental to our beings that, when we are sound asleep and oblivious to other sounds around us, hearing our name is the thing that will arouse us from our slumber, will awaken us to the world around us.  So, it was for the people who came to Mitzrayim. 


In that place, we entered into a deep, spiritual slumber and our reawakening did not come about until our names, our shemot, were spoken.  Our names connected us to our inner being, our neshama.  Those who know cruelty know that robbing one of his or her name is to do injustice to his or her soul.  The Nazis wanted not only to destroy our bodies but our souls as well.  They took our names and gave us numbers, numbers which are anonymous and cold.  Names are alive, they are real.  They speak to meaning and missions, of life and dreams.


It is no wonder then that the book that is focused on the birth and early development of the Jewish people is Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names.  Commandingly, it begins, “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt…” Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the significance of the name Shemot, “A name indicates individuality... a name signifies uniqueness. The Ten commandments were addressed not in the plural but in the singular to emphasize that God relates not only to the collective but to the individual as well. That is why in Shemot, the names of Yaakov’s children are repeated and emphasized.” 


He once told of a visit to a secular kibbutz where a tour guide introduced him to a cow he called “Rachel”.  He immediately recoiled.  The guide seemed amused by his reaction.  “Is giving a cow a name another prohibition imposed by the rabbis?” he asked sarcastically.


Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that each name denotes a singularity that belongs exclusively to humans.  Reuven is not like Shimon.  That is why halacha demands that the names recorded on a marriage document be written with precision. Names are not simply important, they are vital. 


Each name is given, each unique mission revealed by Yaakov at the conclusion of Breishit.  The very first Rashi in Shemot teaches that although they were counted when alive, their individual names are now repeated yet again (after their passing) to inform us chibasan (that they were individually loved; that they counted); that they were comparable to the stars that (each one!) are part of the total universe.  Each star is numbered, named and accounted for by God, each is loved by God.   So too, the people.  Each one of us loved and cared about.


Rashi tells us that this is the meaning of Isaiah proclaiming, “He brings out and counts His heavenly Hosts.”  Each star has its own individual function. Each name known to God, each loved both when it goes out on its nightly task to lighten the world, as well as when it returns each morning.  No star is lost in the vastness of the universe.


Neither the people of Yisrael. Yisrael is a great nation, a great system but no matter how great or vast, each person is vital; none is ever lost.


So, it makes perfect sense that when the Torah begins to teach us about that which will become Am Yisrael, it begins with names, shemot; not names of the multitude but of the singular.  Ish u’beiso bau – each man and his household. 


* * *


Given the importance of names; given that our given name is a window into our souls and our destiny can it be any wonder that the one individual whose role would be to craft the destiny and mission of a nation born in midst of galus, of Mitzrayim; the one whose goal it will be to shape a nation whose ultimate role will be to live a life of chesed, decency, civility, compassion and concern for others – Moshe – that his name is so significant?   


We are taught that Moshe had seven different names but the name by which the Torah calls him, the name by which God addresses him is the name given to him by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh.  Batya, whose own name means “daughter of God”, exhibited a selfless act in drawing the baby forth from the water.  This daughter of Pharaoh, the one who sought to destroy the Jews, who enslaved and demeaned them, was raised in this culture and yet, when she goes into the Nile to bathe and sees a bassinet floating on the water, knowing the infant was a child of the enslaved people she still risks her own life to save him!  Her soul called on her to serve as the hand of God, as a true “bat ya”, and save the child. 


She named the child “Moshe” – ki min ha’mayim meshtihu (because I drew him from the water).


And yet… if the reason she named him Moshe was because she “drew him out of the water” then his name should have been Mashuy (drawn out) rather than Moshe (drawing).  She had, after all, already drawn him out of the water.  But Moshe is Moshe because his calling was a lifelong calling.  He would spend his days leading, schlepping, cajoling, arguing, saving these people from their misery.  He would be a “moshe”, a lifeguard, always looking to rescue them from drowning.  Long before he became Moshe Rabeinu, he was simply Moshe, called upon to be sensitive and attuned to the pain and suffering of others, to help them and lead them.


Moshe is told to never forget his name for his name was not merely the story of some nice princess who saved him from the Nile, not some sweet story of past and completed good deeds. His name was a calling.  It was a name that spoke to his neshama and all he was destined to achieve during his sojourn on this earth.


It is this understanding that explains why, after his name is given by Batya (2;10), the very next posuk tells us, “...Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burden, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.”  


Moshe’s name is immediately put to a test.  How will he react and respond? Will he, in truth, be “moshe”, will he save and draw out?


The answer, as we already know, is in his name and in his soul.