Names and Identity
Imagine that nobody had names. Perhaps just ID numbers. What is wrong with that? Everybody has their number, which is only theirs. When you meet someone, you ask, “Who are you?” and he answers, “I am 2192910456, but you can call me 219 for short.” What’s so bad about that?
Of course, that is dystopian. Our name is much more than just a way to identify us. A person’s name alludes to his essence and to his unique mission in the world. The Kabbalists say that when parents give their child a name, they are inspired by the holy spirit (ru’ach hakodesh) and the name they choose is the soul’s true name. (In Hebrew, shem [name] and neshamah [soul] even share the same sub-root: shin, mem). Every person has a name given to him by God and by his parents. If a person forgets his name, he has in a sense lost his identity.
The name of this week’s Torah portion and of the entire second book of the Pentatuch, in Hebrew, is Shemot, which means “names.” The name of the first parashah, the first portion of the Book of Names (Exodus), is also Shemot. It relates how the Children of Israel—Jacob’s 70 offspring—came to Egypt with names. “And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt.” Each of them has a name and carries with him or her a name that bears significance.
Exile and Names
After the first generation dies, however, it seems that there are no longer any people with names. The all-important significance of names seems to have disappeared. Even though the Jewish people are now growing in numbers, at first, no names are mentioned. The only names that do appear are those of the midwives, Shifrah and Puah; but these do not seem to be ordinary names. As Rashi notes, these are the midwives’ “professional” names. Names by which they were known for the special type of care each gave the newborn children.
What about the story of Moses’ birth? We all know that Moses’ parents were Amram and Yocheved and that Miriam was his big sister. But all their names do not appear in this Torah portion at all! All that is written is that “A man from the house of Levi went and took the daughter of Levi. And the woman became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son…and his sister stood from afar…” A man and a woman, a boy and a girl – but no names! Later, we read about Moses. But he receives his name from Pharaoh’s daughter, not from his parents. What is hiding behind all this anonymity?
In the Egyptian exile, we lost our names. Exile means forgetting my name, my identity, my essence and my mission. Who I am and what I am. Exile is not just a cosmic or national event. Exile can strike anybody; it can affect every individual. Just as there is physical exile, there is the exile of the soul. When that happens, you forget yourself, are drawn into all sorts of places, busy yourself with seeing and hearing all sorts of things being done by others until at one point, you may stop and ask: “Who am I? What do I truly want and need to do? Have I lost my name?
How can we emerge from this type of exile? How do we reclaim our lost names?
A New Name
The great secret of the Torah portion of Shemot is that by means of losing our names in the exile, we will discover our true name. Sometimes, we need to perform a reset of sorts; by doing so, we discover our true identity that was hidden deep inside. It is true that we have a name. We thought that we knew ourselves and knew who we were and yet somehow, that identity was lost. But perhaps we can achieve something much deeper, more sweeping, and far better? Perhaps somewhere in the depths of our soul there is a new name that is patiently waiting to burst forth? If it seems that I have lost my name, if I feel essentially lost, there is a chance for me now to find a new name, a new identity, and a mission that I did not know I had.
This can be likened to the seed of a plant. Initially, the seed is beautiful, complete, and whole. But for the seed to become the start of something new, it must rot. It must cease to exist as it was. The seed in a sense annihilates itself in the ground. It dies, rots and is buried deep below. It is impossible to identify it. But it is specifically from disintegration that something new begins to grow, sprouts, and blossoms in all its glory.
When the Jewish people entered the Egyptian exile, they were like a seed being buried deep in the ground to die. But it is specifically then that the seed sprouts. The Children of Israel lost their names in the exile, reaching a state of rot. Suddenly, a new name is discovered—the name of Moses, the redeemer. The name Moses (מֹשֶׁה) in reverse reveals how fitting it was for him to be the new name sprouting out of the Jewish people, for in reverse his name spells “the name” (הַשֵּׁם).
For something to really grow, we must do at least one thing—the most important thing in the world—remain hopeful, not despair, and turn to God. Just like the Children of Israel’s cry to God and the self-sacrifice of the midwives and Moses’ mother. Please God, only You can give birth to me anew. Perhaps this is what Yocheved thought while she was placing her baby son into the small cradle and sailing it on the river. “I decided to continue to give birth even in this horrific situation. Now I do not know what to do with this baby. I am giving him to you God. He is in Your hands….”
They Did Not Change Their Names
Is the new name disconnected from the old name? Do we have to throw everything away and start from the beginning, as if nothing existed before? Certainly not. After all, the Children of Israel were able to leave Egypt in the merit of the fact that they did not change their names. The first seed that was buried and rotted grew into a huge tree. And now there are new seeds in the fruits of this tree. Seeds exactly like the original. Moses did not erase the early history of the Jewish people, God forbid. On the contrary. He woke the nation from the slumber of exile and revealed their new, true Jewish name. At the exodus, Moses took Joseph’s bones with him—he literally carried the past into the future. Moses is the person who links us all with the previous generations of the patriarchs.
Sometimes, we can lose our names and drift into places where we don’t belong. That is exile. But every day, we evoke the exodus from Egypt in order to remind ourselves that it is possible to emerge from exile! Now I too can understand that after I have fallen and even rotted, I can start anew…