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Shemot Sermon

Jewish tradition has some very strong opinions about naming. In Ashkenazi circles it is a strongly ingrained custom to name a child for a family member who died, in particular someone who recently died. In Sephardi homes naming follows a more prescribed order, typically first child for father’s father whether living or not, second for mother’s father and so on. Parents spend considerable hours, days, weeks and even months discussing and debating their future child’s name. There is also a custom, or perhaps better called, a superstition, of renaming a sick child so as to trick the angel of death. Many of those of older generations named Hayim or Haya are often called these names for this reason.

All of this is by way of introducing this week’s Torah portion, Shemot—Names. First we read the names of Jacob’s sons who find their way into Egypt and of course settle there, ultimately leading to our slavery and eventual freedom. In chapter two we first meet Moses. Curiously no one in this story is named until Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and finally named by her. It is a fascinating story and begs the question why would the Torah not name its greatest hero immediately? Why do we hear so little of his lineage? It is as if the Torah says, “Somebody married somebody else and gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.”

In Pirke Avot we read: "Rabbi Shimon said, there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name is superior to them all." The most important name is that name we earn. It is not what we are given by our parents. As much as these names may symbolize our connection to the past, what others call us because of the good we do are our most important names.

The Hebrew poet Zelda wrote a beautiful poem about names:
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

That is the lesson of Moses’ name. Here was a man who changed history. He was not born into a famous family. In fact his birth was not the most significant event of his life. His parents did not even name him. His story instead began when he was pulled from the water by a complete stranger. He earns his name! It is what others call him.

He began from the humblest of beginnings. He was born to an ordinary family. And then changed history and rescued his people. And that of course is our task—to earn a good name. No matter our beginnings, it never beyond any of us to save others. A good name is within our own hands.