Shemot and HaShem
By Dr Annette Boeckler
Jacob, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph and Benjamin. Shifrah and Puah. Jethro, Zipporah, Gershom and Aaron. Pithom and Raamses. The River Nile and Mount Horeb; Egypt and Midian. The names in this week’s parashah, Parashat Shemot. But the story works pretty well without names, too: “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a certain Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son …” (Ex. 2:1-2). This baby already had a sister, too (v. 4). Let us focus a moment on these as-yet unnamed people. Of course, their namelessness is just the start. Soon they will indeed be named, and we will know them as Amram and Jochebed, Moses and Miriam. But for now, they are like an empty page.
Indeed, the Torah often highlights the giving and revealing of names. Thus far in our reading of this year’s Torah cycle we have encountered many names, beginning with the earliest stories of Adam naming the animals. Many of these names are deeply meaningful. Twice a name was even changed.
In our parashah there are two whole stories about a name. We learn in great detail why Moses, Moshe, acquired his name. Even more solemnly, we learn the name (or a name) of God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzchak, v’Elohei Ya’akov) reveals himself as Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh, “I-will-be-(or become)-who-I-will-be-(or become)” (Ex. 3:14). And already next week God, too, will change his name.
What are shemot, “names”?
“He [Hillel] would say, ‘Spread the name, lose the name. And one who does not increase, ceases. And one who does not study, dies. And one who makes use of the crown [of learning], passes away’” (Avot 1:13) Based on this saying, names seem to be connected with two things: with one’s social reputation and with learning. In Shemot, interestingly, Pharaoh and his daughter do not have names, although they certainly had fame and reputation within their society and beyond.
Our parashah seems to exemplify the second aspect of names: acquiring a name through one’s personal history and learning. The poet Zelda, in her poem L’chol Ish Yesh Shem, described this second meaning of a name: “Each person has a name given him by God and given him by his parents … Each person has a name given him by the star signs and given him by his neighbours. Each person has a name given him by his sins, and given him by his longing. Each person has a name given him by his enemies and given him by his love. Each person has a name given him by his festivals, and given him by his work” (my translation). Each person’s name is that person’s shortest biography. Our name is our lessons learned. God’s names, too, are connected to human biographies. God is Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzchak, v’Elohei Ya’akov, the Divine that shone through in the histories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And if God has a name, does this mean that God learns, too?
We are now starting to learn about the story of the children of Israel, each bearing a name based on different lessons learned. Together they will start a new communal history as B’nei Yisrael, a collective name despite their individual diversity. God, too, will get a new name. One day he will be “God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.
Dr Annette M. Boeckler is a scholar in Jewish liturgy. During her 10 years in London before the Brexit-vote, she was a member of both Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and West London Synagogue. Now she works as director of the Judaism department at the Zurich Institute for Interreligious Dialogue (ZIID) in Switzerland.