What’s In A Name?

What’s In A Name?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:20 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 1:1-6:1
Haftorah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13;
29:22-23. Havdalah: 5:21 p.m.

Many are the differences between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus, but perhaps the greatest change lies in the “personality” (as it were) of God Himself.

Genesis, the book of Creation, refers to God, at first, as Elohim — the sum total of all the powers of the universe — who created the heavens, the earth and all of their accoutrements. This God of the Creation, actually the God who was there before Creation, works very much alone: God creates, God speaks, God calls forth.

Very different is the God of Exodus (or, as the book is known in Hebrew, “Shemot,” meaning “Names”). At the opening of this book, God defines Himself as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (“I will be what I will be”), the God of history into the future. In effect, God is saying that He will bring about freedom and redemption, but in an indefinite time that cannot be revealed to Moses.

Why not? Because God now has partners. Firstly His Israelite covenantal partners (from the “Covenant Between the Pieces” with Abraham [Genesis 15]; secondly, the nations roundabout, especially the powerful Egypt; and, of course, the leaders of Israel, especially Moses and his siblings, Aaron and Miriam.

You see, if Genesis is the book of Creation, Exodus is the book of history, and history is an ongoing process between God and His Chosen Nation, between God and the nations of the world, then God will effectuate, but only with the cooperation of His partners.

For the remainder of the Torah, Moses will be the strong towering figure, from servitude to freedom to revelation, to wandering in the desert, to our entry into Israel. And strangely enough, he is introduced in this week’s reading with no personalized mention of pedigree: “A certain man of the House of Levi went and married a Levite woman; the woman conceived and bore a son… and she hid him for three months” (Exodus 2:1).

Why are Moses’s parents anonymous? Perhaps because it really doesn’t matter who your parents are; it matters who you are. Perhaps because we shall learn that he had a second mother who nurtured him, who saved his life from the baby-slaying Egyptians, who named him (Moses in ancient Egyptian meant “son”) and who brought him up in Pharaoh’s palace — perhaps to teach us that only someone who came from the “outside,” without the slave mentality, could emancipate the Hebrew slaves. Or perhaps to teach us that although the Egyptians enslaved us, it was also an Egyptian woman who endangered her life to save a Hebrew child.

It is only in Chapter 6 of Exodus that we learn the names of Moses’s biological parents, Amram and Yocheved, and their pedigree all the way back to Jacob. This study of his roots comes just when he is about to confront Pharaoh for the first time, beginning his mission to free the Hebrew slaves. Nevertheless, the Bible tells us nothing at all about Moses’s parents, their characters or their activities. We are only told their names.

To be sure, we will learn much from the Bible about the almost superhuman achievements of Moses, who was not only a great political liberator but who also “spoke to God face to face” (as it were), revealing God’s laws for all posterity. We will also come to know the remarkable Aaron and Miriam. However, we cannot help but be curious about the parents of these extraordinary leaders.

I may not know much about the parents but I do know volumes about the grandparents. Just imagine the circumcision ceremony for Amram and the simchat bat for Yocheved, rituals that must have occurred in fearful secrecy during a period of slavery and persecution.

The history of the Children of Israel seemed to be ending before it began, in the hellholes of Pithom and Ramses, in the turpitude of debasement and oppression. Nevertheless, one set of parents choose to name their son Amram, “exalted nation,” and the other set of parents choose to name their daughter Yocheved, “glory to God.” Moses’ grandparents had apparently been nourished on the “Covenant Between the Pieces,” upon the familial prophecy of “offspring who will be strangers in a land not theirs, who will be enslaved and oppressed, but … in the end will go free with great wealth” [Gen.15:13-14], to return to the land of their fathers.

And these grandparents apparently inspired their grandchildren with faith in the exalted status of their nation — a nation that will eventually bring the blessings of freedom and morality to all the earth; a nation with the ability to give glory to God in darkest times, knowing that eventually His great light would shine.

Yes, I may not know much about Moses’ parents but, by the names they bestowed upon their children, I know volumes about Moses’ grandparents! 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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