What’s in a Name
Deborah Housen-Couriel is the, Director of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program and an alumna of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program (Class 12). Deb can be reached at email@example.com.
This coming Shabbat our identical twin sons, Yair and Ely, will become bnei mitzvah, helped through the process by the wisdom of Parashat Shemot (“Names”).
There’s always a lot to say about names and their meaning in any tradition, and it’s not especially surprising that the names of twin boys – one of whom had to be labeled “feed me first” with red toenail polish for the first weeks of his life, in order to keep the bottles straight – hold special importance. Do we name them similarly in order to emphasize that they’re a set, bonded for life? Differently, to give them each a distinct identity? Very differently, like Cain and Abel – and what might that lead to?
Studying Shmot over the past few weeks has pushed me to think about some of my own ideas regarding names and naming, especially at this significant juncture of the boys’ lives.
The parasha contains the core narrative of Moses’ birth, his childhood, and his maturity
into a national leader. In its first chapters, two situations are juxtaposed: that in which the identity of key people in the narrative is tied closely to their names; and that in which the deeper identities of key figures have nothing to do with their names.
Parashat Shmot in fact begins with the importance of family identity and naming, with a categorical list of those who came down to Egypt with Ya’akov, to join Yosef and his family there:
“And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Ya’akov…Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah; Yissachar, Zvulun, and Binyamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Now all those descended from Ya’akov were seventy souls, and Yosef, [who] was in Egypt.”
As well, Moses receives a distinct, definitive, perhaps unique, name from his adoptive mother. She names him – in Hebrew – for “having been extracted from the water” (the Egyptian word mose may have meant, simply, “child”, as in “Thutmose”, son of Thoth). Moses also eventually extracts bnei Yisrael from Egypt. His name is a kind of prism for his passive and active identities in the parasha.
Yet at the very core of the first part of Shmot, which relates the powerful narrative of baby Moses’ being placed in a basket by his mother Yocheved and floated up the Nile for adoption into the royal family, strangely, and I think purposefully, omits the names of the key characters. Moses must have been named by his own family at his brit, yet in this section he is called only “the child” and “the youth”. His mother Yocheved is referred to as bat Levi and “the child’s mother”. Miriam is only “his sister” and “the maiden”. Nor is Pharaoh’s daughter ever named. The full text looks like this:
His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a woman to nurse him from among the Hebrew women? She can nurse the child for you.” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her – “Go!” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to [the mother] “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages. And the woman took the child and nursed him.
So the transaction which allows an anonymous Hebrew slave child to become the royal Moses is, ostensibly, undertaken by anonymous women – even though we know the names of Yocheved, Miriam and Moses.
What can this intentional ambiguity mean?
The easiest explanation is that this nexus in the narrative, at which a child begins to enter into his dramatic and meaningful future, personal particularities such as names, are irrelevant. The story hushes all background noise, so that the crucial act is magnified and takes center stage.
Another way to think about the unidentified characters is to take a post-modern, everyman approach: we are all Moses because we can be fundamentally transformed by the acts of others; we are all Miriam and Yocheved because we can empower and abet transformations in others through our own actions; we are all Bat Par’oh because we are each capable of unexpected acts of kindness that really do make a difference in the world.
In addition to the former two explanations, there is a third explanation that makes the most sense to me and which I will share it with my sons Yair and Ely this Shabbat. It is that at our most transformative personal moments – especially then – we are who we are in substance, not in what others call us.
And at the very best of these moments we receive help and support from those around us, the names of whom we may or may not know. We remember that the highest form of tsedaka is also anonymous tsedaka, and any one of us may have been the fortunate beneficiary of such an unknown and unacknowledged gift.