Living up to your Name?

It is intriguing that the Book of Shemot curiously “translated” or named Exodus is really Names, does not in fact live up to its name! Despite the detailed opening of the Book recounting the names of those of the twelve sons of Jacob, that we already knew, we do not get the names of all the seventy souls that went down to Egypt. These opening bars to the symphony that will follow very much set the tone.This enigma continues to ensue as we encounter nameless characters in the Book of Names. We are introduced to two midwives who the commentators tell us immediately were actually not “Shifra and Puah” (Ch.1:16) but rather Moshe’s mother and daughter, Yocheved and Miriam. If this was the case why not call them that? In the opening of Chapter 2 we meet, “A Man from the house of Levi who (re)marries a woman from the house of Levi” This nameless couple have a child, but apparently do not name him! It was the daughter of Pharaoh, (oh what was her name?) that names him Moshe ,an Egyptian derivative depicting the fact the she drew him out of the water (Ch2:10). The examples persist; growing up Moshe sees “an Egyptian man” striking a “Hebrew man”, three days later nameless Hebrews quarrelling challenge Moshe’s interference, and imply they know he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. Moshe escapes to a “Midianite priest” (2:16), who ironically has seven names, the first of which we are not immediately told.

In the episode of the burning bush this theme (or melody) reaches a climax– an unprecedented crescendo

—  in perhaps the most extraordinary and emotional moment of the opening chapters to our long slavery in Egypt that ultimately becomes our long walk to freedom. Moshe is understandably mesmerized by the burning bush that is not consumed. God calls him by his name, twice, perhaps indicating his moment, identity, calling has arrived. God introduces Himself by exclaiming (Chapter 3:6)

אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Seemingly no name but the term Anochi, I am, is exceptionally important. When God charges Moshe with the task of confronting Pharaoh to release the Jewish people, Moshe’s response is

מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם

generally translated as; Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?

Chassidic tradition based on the Midrash has an astonishing understanding of this dialogue, rather than asking who am I, Moshe, to take on such a task, Moshe is actually asking who are You(God). He evokes the Anochi of the reassurance made by God to Abraham after Abraham questions how he will father a people whose numbers will be likened to the stars when he has no child, and furthermore how will they inherit the Land of Israel when Your covenant with me states they will be enslaved and oppressed in a land that is not theirs? God responds by stating Bereishit 15:14:

גַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל:

And also the nation that they will serve will I (Anochi) judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.

This is the Anochi that Moshe is asking about, it is not about himself rather about the Anochi of the promise to Abraham( and later to Isaac and Jacob) that You, God will redeem them. But there is more, God assures Moses, as it were, that He will play His part, then Moshe asks

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם:

Behold when I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

This too in the Book of Names? Did Moshe really not know the answer? And what is the answer he receives, one of the most striking phrases in the Book of Names;

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם:

Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be), and He said, “So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you. Are we to assume that at this moment even God as it were has no name?

Perhaps these opening chapters of Shemot feature nameless characters because in these dark chapters of our Jewish history that tragically were to be repeated too many times, as slaves, inmates, oppressed and tyrannized people we had no names, they were replaced by numbers. We will recall this again soon as we mark the International Holocaust Memorial Day (on January 27th). The exodus from Mitzrayim, Egypt understood as restriction is about that capacity to regain oneself; one’s identity one’s name and now one’s calling.

About the Author
Shalom is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter. Prior, he served as the AVI CHAI Project Director and Director of Education in the Shlichut and Israel Fellows unit for the Jewish Agency. He has a rich background in camping, running various camps in England where he grew up and later serving as the Education Director at Ramah Poconos. He has served as a consultant for the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Peoplehood Committee, and teaches a course in experiential education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shalom was also a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, after which he served as the Executive Director of Jewish Renewal for United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA). Shalom has a strong passion for teaching, feels privileged to live in Jerusalem and loves sharing stories about life in the Land of so much Promise.
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