David Walk

The Name Game

When I was in junior high (that’s what we called middle school in the dark ages), we would never tell substitute teachers our real names. We thought it was fun. In reality, it was mean. We felt that anonymity provided invincibility. Where did we get this notion? Well, in many children’s stories, power was derived from knowing the name of the adversary. The most famous is Rumpelstiltskin. If you remember, the beautiful princess could keep her child if she could just figure out the imp’s name. It’s a generally recognized principle in psychology, called, appropriately enough, The Rumpelstiltskin Principle. 

What is The Rumpelstiltskin Principle? In psychology, it means that there is value and power in using personal names in negotiations, teaching and management. This was first analyzed by Willem van Tilberg in 1972, Rumpelstiltskin: The Magic of the Right Word. Professor Patrick Henry Winston of MIT wrote,

So how do I show respect to the students?…by knowing each student’s name… Usually the first time I greet a student by name, especially outside of class, the student is astonished, as if witnessing some sort of miracle. Actually, a sort of miracle does occur, because once I know a student’s name, we both tend to perceive our relationship as collaborative, rather than adversarial. The student works harder; I spend more time preparing; and we both enjoy the teaching and learning experience more. It’s empowering.’ 

We see something very similar in this week’s Torah reading. Moshe encounters the SNEH (Burning Bush), and enters into a difficult conversation with God’s presence in the shrub. It’s discomforting enough talking to a plant, but this vegetation gives him an astonishing assignment: Take B’nei Yisrael out of bondage. This is in spite of the fact that he’s a fugitive from Egyptian justice. To get a better feel for this situation, Moshe asks, ‘When I come to B’nei Yisrael and say to them that the God of your ancestors has sent me, and then they ask ‘what is the name?’, what shall I say to them? (Shmot 3:13)’ Clearly, knowing the name has some significance. 

But what is the significance? Is there a chance that, because Moshe was raised in the house of Pharaoh, he didn’t know God’s name? Possible, but not probable. After all he was nursed by his biological mother, and he did go out to observe the Hebrew slaves. So, what is Moshe asking? I’m going to accept the most popular position among the traditional commentaries. Moshe was asking a very sophisticated philosophic, or theological, question: What is the Divine aspect (MIDA) of You, God, that is sending me to B’nei Yisrael? 

Now I don’t what Moshe expected in response. Maybe ‘God of Mercy’, ‘Lord of Lost Causes’ or ‘The Powerful One’. But I don’t believe Moshe was expecting ‘I am what I am’ (perhaps, ‘I will be that which I will be’) or EHI-YEH ASHER EHI-YEH (verse 14). This means that God’s true essence is the eternal nature of the Deity; God always was, and always will be. I assume that Moshe didn’t expect this response, because at the beginning of next week’s parsha God tells Moshe that the AVOT didn’t know the ineffable four-letter name of God, which means Eternal, and is another way of saying AHI-YEH. 

What is God telling Moshe? According to Rashi, that God will always be there for the Jews, both now and in the future. But I think that God is telling Moshe, ‘Don’t worry, I’m here, and that’s all you have to know.’ God is the only constant. Everything else comes and goes, but not God, the Eternal. 

The Sforno expands on this idea: I am an independent existence, not subject to influences by other phenomena or even caused by them. Seeing that this is so, it follows that I love existing, and beings that exist…At the same time, it follows that I must hate injustice and cruelty as these vices are apt to terminate the existence of the victims of these vices. Clearly, then, this God must hate the violence and cruelty perpetrated on you by the Egyptians. 

The Sforno believes that God is informing Moshe of the fact that God’s permanence also includes a sense of justice. The end of verse 14 adds: Thus, you shall say to B’nei Yisrael, ‘EHI-YEH sent me to you.’ This permanent aspect of God is at work. The Avot may not have been fully cognizant of this name, but they knew that all the promises made to them were for ZAR’ACHA ACHARECHA, ‘your progeny after you (Breishit 17:7).’ 

This name, based on the Hebrew verb to be, is the true essence of God. All other epithets are used to describe God’s actions at a particular juncture of history (Kuzari 2:2). This unique name is the basis of our relationship with God, the Eternal. All the promises and covenants are forever, and the Jews should find solace in this, whether they are in Egypt or the modern world. 

As Humphrey Bogart says to Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca, ‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.’ That’s what is happening between God and the Jewish people here at the beginning of Sefer Shmot.  

The relationship between B’nei Yisrael and God is cemented by the fact that God is willing to share the Divine Name. Not because it’s magic, but because, as Prof. Winston said, ‘Actually, a sort of miracle does occur, because once (we know God’s name) we both tend to perceive our relationship as collaborative, rather than adversarial…It’s empowering.’ We’ve had that power ever since. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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