THE SEFER IS called Shemos because it is the second word of the first parsha, “These are the names…” But there seems to be more to this than might be the case with the other four books of the Torah, since this week’s parsha begins with an education about God’s names.
In last week’s parsha, Moshe Rabbeinu insisted on having God tell him in whose name the Jewish people were being redeemed, and though God obliged him, in this week’s parsha He criticized Moshe for asking the question. Also, in this week’s parsha, Pharaoh rejects Moshe’s request to let the people leave for three days because he doesn’t recognize the Name of God, which is different than the one that God had told Moshe.
One of the reasons why Bible “critics” have often put forward the idea that the Torah had multiple authors, is the different names used to refer to God. They have assumed that God only needs one name, making it seem as if they never did a thorough job of researching the reason for each one used. It seems that just about every critic of the Torah, “professional” or amateur, has turned a blind eye to the traditions handed down for generations that explain the names, and put everything into the proper perspective.
A name in general is an interesting topic. The English word does not hint to very much, but the Hebrew word—shem—does. It is the same letters as the word shumm—there, a location word as in, “He’s standing over there.” A Hebrew name is more than just a way to identify someone. It “locates” them as a person, which is why, as the Arizal explains, Jewish parents get divine assistance (Ruach HaKodesh) when choosing the Hebrew name for their child.
By “locate” we do not mean physically, because just pointing at someone can do that too. We mean spiritually, as in identifying the nature of a person. This is why so many names in Tanach seem strange to us, as if they are a conjugation of different words and ideas, making almost a sentence. They are, and a message about the person they describe.
In the Chumash, the names were actually prophecies about a person’s path in life, specifically with respect to the Shevatim. The names given by the Avos predicted the future lives of their children, and in particular, critical moments that would define their lives for good or for bad. During the millennium of prophecy, it was not uncommon to ask a prophet for the name of a child. It was never an issue of which names the parents liked and wanted to call the child. It was about giving a name that would eventually help the child to better understand themself.
We’re here, not to make just any name for ourselves, but to live up to our own.
SEFER SHEMOS IS about the freedom of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. The names mentioned seem more incidental than actually a part of the story. Now, it would seem that names are an essential part of the redemption process.
The truth is, there is no greater freedom in life than knowing who you are. That sounds trivial, especially given the extremely difficult forms of exile there are in the world, physical and spiritual. But life is a journey to authentic selfhood, and so many people just don’t take it, too busy just trying to survive.
The meaning of names has not only to do with people, but also is true of places. For example, Mitzrayim is comprised of two parts, meitzer—boundary, and yumm (Yud-Mem), which has a gematria of fifty. Mitzrayim therefore was a place whose ideology constricted fifty, or more specially, the Fifty Gates of Understanding, the basis of Torah life.
Yisroel, as we learned from Ya’akov Avinu’s battle with the angel, means that Ya’akov struggled with an angel and men (Lavan and Eisav) and prevailed. On other occasions, I’ve explained that this does not refer to Ya’akov’s physical prowess, but his spiritual prowess. He was able to see the hand of God in all that happened to him despite how people like Eisav, Lavan, and Shechem made it seem as if they worked alone.
Even though God officially changed Ya’akov’s name to Yisroel, the name still impacts history. The final 2,000 years of history are called Ikvesa d’Meshicha—Heels of Moshiach. It is not a coincidence that the trials and tribulations preceding the arrival of Moshiach have the same three letters of Ya’akov, especially since it was Eisav’s heel that Ya’akov held onto at birth, and Eisav has been the source of most of those trials and tribulations.
This from the Arizal provides another insight into Ya’akov’s name:
After that, when Ya’akov and Eisav emerged they were b’sod Hevel and Kayin. Ya’akov was born with his hand grasping the heel of Eisav. He grabbed [the heel of Eisav because that is where] the good portion of the firstborn [was], which Eisav had taken. [In the heel was where] the good of Kayin had been mixed together with the evil as mentioned above, b’sod, “you will bite his heel.” As a result of the heel he took from him, he was called “Ya’akov.” After that, when [Ya’akov] fathered Yissachar he bequeathed to him the good portion that he took from Eisav, which had been the good from Kayin. This is the sod of [the verse], “So he lay with her that night” (Bereishis 30:16), because Ya’akov himself is called this, because of the heel mentioned that he put into Leah b’sod a pairing, and from that Yissachar was born. This is what is written in the Midrash Ne’elam of Rus, that Rebi Akiva came from Yissachar, who is the heel that was mentioned. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 38)
It’s all quite kabbalistic, and requires more background information to understand what it actually means. But it does show how Ya’akov’s name even made an impact on Rebi Akiva’s life millennia later, as the name “Akiva” (it has aikev—heel in it) indicates.
AND OF COURSE, there was the name of Moshe Rabbeinu. The entire episode of Moshe’s early life is rather unique and borders on the absurd. I used to think that the Jewish people were the only ones crazy enough to let their enemy into the “palace.” Apparently Pharaoh did the same thing by allowing Moshe to grow up in his place of residence and to participate in his government.
Also amazing is the source of Moshe’s name. It did not come from his own parents, but from his foster mother, Basya (Bisia according to the proper pronunciation):
The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became like her son. She named him Moshe, saying, “For I drew him from the water.” (Shemos 2:10)
She must have had Ruach HaKodesh too, because she was spot on. We can assume that Moshe had already been named by his parents since he had been three months old already when she found him in the Nile. Yet, we never hear about that name.
According to Chizkuni it was actually Yocheved who called him Moshe, and later told Pharaoh’s daughter the name. She agreed to its appropriateness since, as she says in the verse, “I drew him from the water.” This would explain why the verse says she only him named him Moshe after he had already grown up, and not when she had found him.
Ibn Ezra says that Bisia called Moshe the Egyptian name Munius, which the Torah translates into Hebrew as Moshe. The Yalkut Shimoni says that Moshe had ten other names, each instructive about who he was and what he did: Yered, Avigdor, Chever, Avi Socho, Yekusiel, Avi Zanoach, Toviah, Shemayah, Ben Evyatar, Levi. The Gemora also mentions this as well (Megillah 13a).
So why then, of all the names Moshe had, was he called Moshe? For one, Moshe is spelled Mem-Shin-Heh, which stands for Moshe, Shais, and Hevel, all of his reincarnations in reverse. Secondly, the gematria of Moshe is 40+300+5, which equal 345. If you subtract the gematria of Hevel from his name, which is 37, you get 308, the gematria of Korach who challenged Moshe and who was the reincarnation of Kayin, Hevel’s brother who killed him (Shem M’Shmuel).
And if you subtract the gematria of Moshe (345) from the gematria of Moshiach (358), it equals 13. Aside from being the gematria of ahavah—love, and echad—one, 13 is the number of traits of mercy that we invoke to be saved from anything, and the number of tikunim—rectifications—on the level of Arich Anpin, the level of divine light from which all redemptions come. It is the light that will be necessary to allow Moshe Rabbeinu to reincarnate as the final redeemer of the Jewish people.
What’s in a name? Sometimes, not much. Other times, untold insights and secrets about life and history.
Ain Od Milvado, Part 35
EVEN THOUGH GOD told Moshe from the outset that Pharaoh would not heed his demand, He didn’t tell Moshe that his demand would worsen the situation. Therefore, a distraught Moshe Rabbeinu complained bitterly to God at the end of last week’s parsha that it did get worse, and he was censored by God for it.
It would seem that Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t yet understand the true nature of the redemption he was supposed to be orchestrating on behalf of God. It hadn’t been only about freeing the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, but about freeing them from any dependency on anything else other than God. Moshe had to fail, and badly, so that when the redemption did come, it would be clear to all that it was totally the work of God.
Why did it make a difference, especially if God didn’t care about getting credit for anything? If he doesn’t need our praise, then why did He want to be clear that redemption comes only from Him?
Because the moment we depend upon anything else other than God, we are compromised. Everything else other than God has lackings, needs, dependencies, etc. Consequently, this often means that success and fulfillment comes with a price, and that leads to personal compromise.
Since God needs nothing, and there is nothing we can give Him that He doesn’t already have. Being perfect, everything He does for us is for our good and our good only. Since He doesn’t have to look out for Himself, He can look out for us only. Any demands He makes on us are, by definition, for our own good and not His at all.
Ain od Milvado does not only mean that there are no powers but God. It also means that He is the only one who can be totally concerned about us, and in Whom we can trust to act on our behalf at all times without any ulterior motives. This may be a little abstract and require trust and faith, but it is a price we pay only to ourselves since it only enhances our sense of calm.