Friday, January 4, 2013

Shemot

Parents deliberate for months the names that they select for their children. For whom should they name their child? What if the baby is a girl? A boy? What should be the child’s Hebrew name? Do the origins of the name matter? Will the name influence their child’s future character?

The most significant book of the Torah begins in a similar fashion. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher…” (Exodus 1:1-4)

And yet the story of the most significant person in the Torah begins without naming a single person. Listen to how the Torah frames our hero’s beginnings.
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:1-10)
No one is named in this entire story until its conclusion. The Torah records no names for our actors until this brave young woman gives it to our hero. Moses is named not by his mother or even his father. Instead he is named by Pharaoh’s daughter. Imagine that! The daughter of the very man who sets in motion the need to hide Moses in a basket so that he will not be killed by Pharaoh’s henchman not only saves Moses but names him. (By the way Pharaoh is a title not a name. It is most akin to when we hear “The White House said…” The house of Levi is a tribe.)

The Book that begins with names and is in fact called in Hebrew “Shemot—Names” introduces its greatest hero with the words “A certain somebody from an important tribe married a female somebody from the same community and then gave birth to a beautiful boy…” I find this remarkable! And so the question remains: why would the Torah that will later be called “The Five Books of Moses” introduce its hero in this way? Why would it want his beginnings not to be based on lineage?

It is because his story must instead be based on merit, on actions, on his accomplishments. Moses’ name in fact suggests the first of many such actions. The Torah suggests that it comes from the Egyptian meaning “to draw out.” He will of course later become the man who draws the Israelites out of Egypt.

Thus we learn that our most important names are not those that are given to us by our parents. They are always those we earn throughout our lives. In fact those must be the names that others call us by.

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