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By Rabbi Heshy Grossman | Series: | Level:

“And these are the names of the Bnai Yisrael who came with Ya’akov to Mitzraim, each man with his household came.”(Shemos 1:1)

“Although they were counted by name during their lifetime, they were counted again at death, making known how precious they were, being compared to the stars who emerge and enter by number and name….” (Rashi, ad. loc.)

“All their lives they illuminated as the stars, [influencing] the nation, who didn’t stray towards evil culture.” (Sforno, ibid.)

It is the names of the Shevatim that appear at night, a promise to their children of a brighter tomorrow.

Why is the entire book of Shemos, dealing with the exile in Egypt and its subsequent redemption, referred to by this title – Names? Is this the central aspect of the Sefer?

In our shiur this week, we will answer this question, explaining the meaning of a Jewish name.


“And these are the names of the B’nai Yisrael – as regards the redemption of Israel they are mentioned here. Reuven – as it says – ‘Re’eh Ra’isi Es Ani Ami’. Shimon – as in – ‘VaYishma Elokim Es Na’akasam’ …..” (Shemos Rabbah, 1:5)

The Midrash goes on to demonstrate that each of the Shevatim possess a trait that activates Divine intervention, teaching that Klal Yisrael is redeemed through their names. It is the name of the tribes, each representing a particular characteristic that draws G-d’s mercy.

Biblical names are indication of the personal character of their bearer. The twelve tribes were shining lights for the nation, and during their lifetime the people never strayed from the righteousness of their fathers. Even after their passing, the path established by the Shevatim remained as a moral compass for the Jewish people, and it is this loyalty to their forebears that sparks their salvation. The nation that ultimately leaves Mitzraim to receive the Torah is the picture image of the seventy souls who two hundred years earlier descended as one together with Ya’akov Avinu.

Chazal take this concept one step further.

“….In the merit of four things Israel went out of Mitzraim: they never changed their names, they never changed their language, they were not promiscuous, and they didn’t reveal secrets.” (Midrash Shochar Tov, 114)

Klal Yisrael is redeemed not only for having the same names as their fathers, but for never having changed those names.

Let us explain.

Try the following experiment: invite a friend out to dinner, or some other leisure activity. A little while later, send somebody else to him with a much better offer. Afterwards, have yet a third person suggest something even more enticing. See how easy it is for a person to change his mind?

The truth is, we don’t need to look much further than our own mirrors. When was the last time you made a commitment to improve on a particular Mitzva, or abstain from a known Aveira? Why are these promises unsuccessful? Weren’t we sincere at the time of our pledge?

Here’s a similar test: prepare an idea to think about for an extended period, with full concentration, without allowing your mind to wander. How long does it take before you are distracted?

This lack of focus is a reflection of our flighty state of being, a function of our confused sense of identity. Unaware of the true nature of our very selves, we flutter from one interest to the next, from one relationship to another, incapable of true commitment. Inconsistent in our beliefs, we cannot even concentrate on our prayers, our thoughts preoccupied with another passing fancy.

It is for clearing this hurdle that the Bnai Yisrael merit redemption.

Discovering their true identity, faithful to the lofty image of their exalted ancestors, they are recognized by G-d when He calls their name.


When Dinah, the daughter of Ya’akov, is degraded by Shechem ben Chamor, her brothers Shimon and Levi quickly plot to take revenge, destroying the entire city.

Though Ya’akov seems displeased, he never openly critiques the killings. “Arrur Apam Ki Az…” (Breishis 49:7) – it is only their anger that is cursed. Apparently, it is the manner in which they acted that warrants rebuke, while the actual murder of Shechem and his cronies was justified.

“Shimon and Levi, brothers, with stolen weapons of war.” (ibid., v. 5)

“Stolen weapons – this skill of murder is theft in your hands, it is from the blessing of Esav. It is his expertise, and you stole it from him.” (Rashi, ad. loc.)

Every Jew is an original. With a mind of his own, and a character given from birth, he is obliged to develop his own potential, utilizing his own self, to reach heavenly heights.

Here is their sin defined: The trait of murder is not inherent to Klal Yisrael. Even when killing is called for, a Jew must still refrain. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s not Jewish. He dare not behave as one of the nations.

This concept brings to mind the famous response of the Nodah BiYehuda. When questioned as to the propriety of a wealthy Jew hunting animals for recreation, he affirmed that no prohibition was being directly violated in the pursuit of live game.

However, he voiced his disapproval: “I am quite amazed about the entire matter. We have never found any hunters other than Nimrod and Esav, and this is not the way of the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov…..and how can a Jew kill a live animal with his own hands, for no reason other than to fill his time with hunting?!” (Nodah BiYehuda, Yoreh De’ah 2:10)

Perhaps, we can now understand why good character is a prerequisite for Torah scholaship. The personal traits of man are a permanent mark of his essential identity, a central basis that encompasses every subsequent deed. A faulty character will lead to a distortion of the Torah’s will, presenting G-d’s treasured vision in a vessel that needs repair.

This is a point that is often lost. More than a blind observance of particular Mitzvos, the Jew is obliged to perfect his character, refining the base instincts that define the life of most men.

This is his name, and the essence of his being, the stars that illuminate his physical existence in a faraway land.


Why do the Mitzvos of the Torah never change, oblivious to the passage of time?

We tend to view spirituality as an ephemeral concept, rooted only in the inconsistent feelings of man’s emotions and thoughts.

This is not true.

The spiritual dimension of life is more solid than our own mortal existence, resting upon an eternal bedrock of truth.

The Torah is the physical expression of that reality, the defining force of all existence. It is the world’s identity, and identity never changes.

The Torah is more than a set of instructions, or a guide for good living. It precedes life itself, forming the order and basis of all physical being.

The entire Torah is one Divine Name.

People come and go, ideas never stay the same, but the Torah is forever.

Take care of your Jewish name.

“Zeh Shmi L’Olam, V’Zeh Zichri L’Dor VaDor”

JerusalemViews, Copyright (c) 1999 by Rabbi Heshy Grossman and Project Genesis, Inc.