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Posts Tagged ‘names’

Shemot – When it comes to nation building – individuals matter

Posted by rabbiart on January 5, 2015

Sefer Breshit has concluded, and to borrow from the late Paul Harvey, it’s time for the rest of the story.

“Everybody knows” that the books of the Torah take their names from the first significant word when in Hebrew, but the non  Hebrew names are thematic.  The second book, which we begin this Shabbat, is  a great example.  We call it “Shemot”, but in English it’s rendered as “Exodus”.  (That itself is an interesting choice.  Imagine if the name were “Revelation” and highlighted the giving of the Torah rather than the escape from Egypt.)

The Torah’s five books can be grouped, and often are, as 1+3+1. The first book is the story of families, the next three are the story of nation building, and the fifth book is a combination of recapitulation, more legislation, and the farewell to Moshe Rabbeinu.

Why does sefer shmot begin with a recounting of Joseph’s family? Is this simply a transitional device, or a way to ease gently into the new story of our people descending into and then climbing up out of the slavery of mitzrayim? For an answer we borrow a principle made well known by Professor Alter; that the first utterance by a person in the Torah is a clue and a definition of his (or her!) character. We’ll apply this to the names of the books as well. Breshit is all about creating. Creating a world, creating humans, creating a society, and creating the family of Hebrews that will eventually become the nation of Jews. (Works pretty well for book one, I think. Let’s see if it will work for the second book as well.)

First we should recall that a number of parshiot contain a census, and as the number of people increases, only a few pivotal individuals merit a mention. Nations, we might think, are built in the aggregate. The greatest good for the greatest number becomes an organizing principle. The opening verses of Shemot are themselves a mini census and set out the formula for the ones that follow. Some individuals are named, and the total number of people is reported.

Applying the “Alter principle”, Sefer shemot must therefore be all about names, and specifically, the names of b’nai yisrael. Names are simply labels, so we’ll take a baby drash step and say that it is really about people. More precisely, individual people. We will meet some of them over the next 11 parshiot. Some are famous (Moshe), others infamous (Pharoah) and many are anonymous. Really, most of them are anonymous to us, and undoubtedly to their leaders.

I can hear you beginning to wonder “is there going to be a point to this?” Yes, there is. And here it is.

This Shabbat we begin reading the story of how we became a nation that survives to this very day. But we are a nation of individuals. And individuals matter. When a mitzvah is performed, and individual performs it. When a minyan is formed, it takes ten individuals to make it. When a corner of the field is left unharvested for the poor, it is an individual who must make sure this happens. When a sick person must be visited, it’s an individual who visits.

This is why we begin with ‘these are the names of the members of Israel’. Because we need – and are given – a reminder that individuals matter. It’s “I – Thou” and not “We -Thou”. No matter how big the group, no matter how ginormous the budget, no matter how great the cause – individuals have the names, and each individual (we hope in our day) matters.

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Call me by my name

Posted by rabbiart on January 14, 2009

Here’s the correct URL for Appearing to Forget, Forgetting to Remember

Who are we?  What is our name?  How do we identify ourselves? The parshah begins by reciting the names of those who wend down to Mitzrayim. Why?  We – the reader – know the names of Yakov’s family, especially the most famous member of them all – Yosef.  Considering the multi-part drama of his reunion with the family, it seems likely that the contemporary ruling class would have known the members of this family as well.  We can easily imagine the dinner table conversations about the strange relatives of Pharoah’s number one right-hand man. Yet a few short verses and we encounter a statement that resonates through history to this very day.

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף

There arose a new Pharoah over Mitzrayim, who knew not Yosef

Is it credible that a new Pharoah would not have known of Yosef, the man who single-handedly saved Mitzrayim from famine?  Or is it more likely that this new Pharoah did not want to credit Yosef; did not want to recognize Yosef’s achievements. The denial of Yosef is like a warning shot across the bow; as much more non-naming is soon to be recounted.

Pharoah quickly pronounces that the Israelites are “other”, not part of Mitzrayim, and will ally themselves with Pharoah’s enemies at the first opportunity.  When the midwives demur  from killing Israelite sons, they offer Pharoah a justification easy for Pharoah to accept. “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they give birth too fast.”

Yosef’s name has been expunged from Egypt’s memory of the past. Now – in chapter two – the future will be born – anonymously.  A man and woman from the house of Levi have a son. He is hidden, then floated upon the water, watched by his sister.  The Torah gives us no names for these people.  it takes Pharoah’s daughter, herself un-named in the story, to give the child a name – Moshe.

How does Moshe know who he is?  The Torah gives us no answer, only a story of Moshe going out to seek – and recognize – his brothers. He intervenes on behalf of one brother, then is outed when he tries to intervene between two more on the next day.  Still no one is named, and he flees to Midian, where again he tries to do the right thing.  finally, (chapter two, verse twenty one) he is married to Zipporah, and (we can reasonably infer) known by name within his Midianite family.

Ultimately, Moshe has his famous meeting at the burning bush.  When he asks the voice for a name he is told simply  אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה     which can be translated as either “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be”. This is a name that is both frightening and promising at the same time. Why is it, in a parshah called “names”, no one seems to have one? Or, at least, why is it so difficult to find out what the people in our story are called.

Steve Goodman, the late folksinger, popularized a song that included the lyric “you don’t have to call me darling, darling, but you never even call me by my name.” As a young parent, I wanted my children to call me by my first name, rather than by Dad, Daddy or any of the usual appellations.  It didn’t last, and its probably not without significance that it didn’t.  To our children, our identity is as a parent, so a parental “name” is the name that best expresses the relationship between us.

Names are powerful. Names can determine behavior.  As we labor through the birth pangs of our Israelite family each week in the Torah, let us understand and recognize the power of names.   If Pharoah knew Yosef, he couldn’t fear him and be suspicious of his family. Pharoah decided he didn’t know our name, so he could do really nasty things to us.   As we labor through the ongoing birth pains of our modern Israelite nation, let us also remember the power of names, both within our family, and outside our family.   Rockets , bombs and bullets may be flying toward each other, but more than that, what we call each other tells us how we feel about each other.  We need to use names that lead us toward peace, and away from conflict.

Shabbat Shalom

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