What is in a name?: Thoughts on Parahat Sh’mot and observance of Yahrtzeit

Names both distinguish us from each other and also can denote our relationships one to the other.

This week we begin the reading of the Book of Exodus, which is called The Book of Names — Shemot — in Hebrew Our Torah reading begins with the words “These are the names of the Children of Israel.” The chapter continues with the listing of the names of the tribes that went down to Egypt, prospered there, and ultimately were enslaved. By the end of the chapter our attention has been focused upon one child of one family of one tribe — a person named Moses.

Fifty- two years ago this week, in January 1966, on Shabbat Sh’mot I stood in synagogue and recited the mourner’s kaddish for the first time. Earlier that day, I buried my dad, Jerry Borovitz, who died at the age of 42 from a form of heart disease that would be easily treated today. Seventeen years ago, in January 2001, my dad’s thirty-fifth yarzheit, my brother Stuart Borovitz succumbed to a long battle with M.S. Therefore, for me and my family Shabbat Sh’mot — the Sabbath of Names — has a very poignant and personal aspect to it.

Neither my father nor my brother was a great and famous man, like Moses. There are no books of Borovitz that they wrote or were written about them. They did, however, share a rare and often overlooked quality with Moses. Both Jerry Borovitz and Stuart Borovitz were good, decent men, who when confronted with the choice, always chose the ethical over the expedient. In their memory, I want to devote the rest of this column to lessons we can learn from the life of Moses, lessons that my dad and my brother, neither of whom were rabbis, implicitly understood and taught others by example.

All four of these lessons are found in chapter three, the story of the burning bush. There we hear this man named Moses asking God : “When they (the children of Israel) ask me what is God’s name, what shall I say to them?” God answers Moses by saying “Eheyeh asher Eheyeh” which can translate into English one of four ways: I am that what I am, I am that what I will be, I will be that what I am, and I will be that what I will be.

Based upon the four possible translations of the answer Moses heard at the burning bush, I suggest to you four challenges surrounding the names that we 21st century Jews call ourselves and each other for your personal contemplation and for discussion around your study or dinner tables this week.

1. Being a Jew in the 21st century requires of each of us to choose to be God wrestlers. (The name Israel is derived from the story of Jacob wrestling with a being that the text of Genesis taught us was both human and divine.) Every Jew today, like the Israelites who chose to leave Egypt, is a Jew by choice. Some are biological descendants of Jacob, while others, like the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with the Israelites during the Exodus, are spiritual descendants and full and equal partners in the covenant that God made with Abraham. The Jewish future is ultimately in each of our own individual hands, just as Exodus three indicates that the future of Judaism was once in the hand of Moses. For my dad, who as a World War II G.I., experienced anti-Semitism within the U.S. Army Air Corp, and witnessed the devastation we now call the Holocaust, the only response was to provide his children with a positive American Jewish upbringing, and to instill in each of us, by example and word, his deep belief in the equality of all people, and his contempt for religious and racial prejudice.

2. Just as there are 12 tribes in the Book of Exodus, each related but unique, that went down into Egypt with their father Jacob and came up out of Egypt with their leader Moses, so too today there are uniquely but authentically different tribes that belong to the People of Israel. Today, instead of calling them Judah, Levi, Benjamin, or Reuben, we call these tribes by their religious divisions — Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform — and by their most immediate place of residence, be they American, European, Russian, Ethiopian, Iraqi, or Syrian, and so on. In mid 20th-century America, Jews were much more tolerant of other. Perhaps because Jews affiliated with Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues, along with unaffiliated Jews, all went to public school together, the hatred and fear that we see in the first quarter of the 21st century was missing.

3. Being a Jew in the 21st century also requires of us to recognize that because we are created in the image of God, each of us, as the name of God indicates, we will be what we will be, based upon who we are and who we wish to become. Like Moses, we need to have the patience and perseverance to continually fight for the liberation of the enslaved and the oppressed. Like Moses, we need to be willing to stand up to the oppressors of our age, be they Pharaohs, like the leaders of Syria or Iran, or those who seek to terrorize innocent people, through acts of anti-Semitic vandalism, such as Jews are experiencing in European communities, or through acts of terror via rockets from Gaza this past summer. We will stand together and demand liberation for ourselves and for others, and assert, in the words of FDR, that we, like every other human being on earth, are entitled to freedom of religion, freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom of speech.

4. The story of Moses’ formative years in the Torah narrative this week reminds me that like Moses in his generation, for Jews of the 21st century, being a Jew is a choice. That choice requires us to continually be God wrestlers, who recognize that in our ever-evolving world, God is present and is continually calling out to us to connect ourselves to the Name, the source of physical, spiritual, and intellectual energy, by connecting ourselves to each other. Judaism teaches us that unity with God requires being a member of a community. We must affirm what unites us and respect each other’s differences.

As we begin to read again from the Book of Names, I hope that each of you can remember the names of family and friends who impacted your lives as my brother and my dad impacted mine. Since this amazing Book also is called Exodus, because it is the story of our liberation, may 2018 be the year that we American Jews of various religious streams and ethnic, racial and national origin, leave behind our petty rivalries, and accept each other, for who we are; unique, but equal members of the community of God wrestlers who call ourselves b’nai Yisrael.

Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, is a past chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

About the Author
Rabbi Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years. Prior to assuming his position in River Edge in the summer of 1988 Rabbi Borovitz served as Hillel Rabbi and Instructor in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Texas in Austin (1975-82), the Executive Director of the Labor Zionist Alliance on the United States, (1982-83) and as the Rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn, New York (1983-88). Rabbi Borovitz, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1970, his M.A. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious (HUC-JIR) in 1973 and was ordained at HUC-JIR in June 1975. In March of 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR. Rabbi Borovitz is an active leader in community affairs. He has been a member of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee for 25 years. He is the immediate past chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and has also served on the Jewish Federation Board. He currently serves on the National Board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and on the Foundation Board of Bergen Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Bergen County NJ. He is past President of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis as well as the founding chairman of the Jewish Learning Project of Bergen County Rabbi Borovitz is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Standard and the Bergen Record and a frequent lecturer on Judaism; The Middle East and Interfaith cooperation.
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