Eliezer Lawrence
Rabbi, Judeo-Linguist, Educator and Mohel

What’s in a name?

What's in a Name? (Source: Dall-E 2)

The Mechilta teaches that Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, had seven names: Yeter, Yitro, Chovav, Reuel, Chever, Putiel, and Keni, each corresponding to an aspect of Yitro’s entirety. Yeter, because he was always adding good deeds. Chovav and Reuel, because he was beloved and a friend of God, and the list goes on. Rashi adds that the vav at the end of Yitro’s name specifically represents Yeter’s conversion to Judaism and acceptance of God and His Torah. This is of particular importance in this week’s parsha, named for Yitro, which includes ma’amad har sinai and the receiving of the Torah.

In the first 15 pesukim of our parsha, Yitro is directly referenced 11 times (Ex. 18:1-15). The majority of these times make reference to Yitro as “chotein Moshe” or “Moshe’s father in law,” which makes sense. His primary role in the story is that of a schver, a father in law; he is a haven for Moshe’s wife and children, bringing them when it is determined to be safe for them to join the rest of the Israelites. When settled, Yitro takes on a semi-parental advisory role and lovingly helps Moshe navigate the challenges of daily leadership. This is what a father in law does, and it is for this reason that the Torah put the relationship front and center in referring to Yitro.

There are, however, two consecutive instances where the in-law relationship is not mentioned and he is referred to only by his first name. In these two pesukim, his personage is entirely independent of other relationships; they describe moments of Yitro’s internal introspection about God’s miracles.

And Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that Hashem had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians. “Blessed be Hashem,” Yitro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians (Ex. 18:9-10).

When he stands in awe before God, he is not Moshe’s father in law, but simply “Yitro,” the servant of God who will cast his lot with the Jewish people. He is not joining the people because he married into them, but because he, of his own volition and consciousness, recognizes the truth in God’s dominion.

When we are in relationship with others, we take on so many different roles and titles. Sometimes we are our partner’s spouse, our student’s teacher or our children’s parent. Sometimes we are our employee’s supervisor, or our supervisor’s employee. We may be our doctor’s 20th patient of the day, or the store clerk’s kindest customer. All of these contexts and descriptions contain truth about who we are; they just don’t make up the full picture. 

But, like Yitro, when we stand before God our entirety is fully observable. We are no longer a partial “self” in reference to our relationships with others. We are a whole self in relationship with God.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Lawrence is a passionate Jewish educator and certified Mohel who uses his various platforms to enrich identity and instill meaning to Jewish texts, language and ritual. An alumnus of Columbia University and the Kollel of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, Rabbi Lawrence holds MAs in Bible and Semitic Languages and in Teaching Hebrew as a Second Language. He has taught Gemara, Tankah, Yiddish and Hebrew in both Jewish day school and adult educational settings and has written about language and Jewish identity for various publications. Alongside his community work as a Mohel, he currently serves on the faculty of the Hebrew department at Yeshiva University.
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