Shemot: earning the name by which God will know us

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Exodus 1:1-6:1

Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23

What's in a name? The author of Genesis apparently believed there is a great deal, because he portrayed God bringing creatures to Adam "to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name" (Gen. 2:19). The act of naming gave Adam dominion over the animals.

But names are about more than just power.

So important were names to the writer of Exodus that this book was given the title Shemot, which is translated as "names." Shemot, this week's Torah portion, begins by listing the names of Jacob's family members to indicate the sacred obligation of remembering progenitors. It is a notion carried into modern life by Ashkenazi Jews who give a child the Hebrew name of a late relative.

Naming a baby after a deceased family member is a way of giving new life to that person and cherishing a child who serves as a reminder of a loved one. So highly regarded is this practice that the largest number of squabbles over ritual and religious practice that I encounter involve questions of child naming.

This tension surfaces in Aharon Megged's poignant story entitled "The Name," in which the central conflict is between an Old World grandfather who prefers a Yiddish name and a young Israeli couple who insist on a Hebrew name for their child.

In spite of all the effort that parents put into naming their babies, many children do not know their Hebrew names and for whom they are named, as well as which qualities of that person's life are worthy of emulation.

Because each Hebrew name has rich meaning, it may also provide a clue to the expectations parents have for a child's future. For example, the suffix or prefix "El" or "Ya(h)" may be appended to a child's name, in the hope that God will protect that child. Thus, Yishaiya, the Hebrew name Isaiah, means "God will be salvation"; Gavriel, the Hebrew equivalent of Gabriel, means "God is my strength"; and the Hebrew name Daniel means "God is my judge."

Other names come from the natural world of animals and plants. Thus, Zev is wolf, Rachel is ewe, Ari is lion, Elon is tree, Devorah is bee. Still other names depend on moods and feelings: Yitzhak (laughter), Shira (song), Rina (joy), Mara (bitterness). In modern Israel, parents sometimes choose names associated with the rebirth of the Jewish state. Thus, Yigael or Geula, forms of the word for redemption, have been chosen as have the first names of early Zionists such as Ze'ev (Jabotinsky) or Theodor (Herzl).

At times, a name may provide a profound message to a spouse or a family. When Leah, who felt unloved by Jacob, gave birth to her sons, she gave them names that would somehow comment on her marriage. Reuven was born and she stated, "Now my husband will love me" (Gen. 29:32).

When Zebulun, her sixth son, was born she declared, "God has given me a choice gift, this time my husband will give me presents, for I have borne him six sons" (Gen. 30:20). Each of her children bears a name reflecting her comments.

In addition to names given by a parent to a child, the rabbis believed each person obtains two additional names: one given by others and one each individual acquires on his own" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah). While we have no control over the name we are given and little control over what others call us, we do have a significant say in the name we earn.

Thus, in taking great care to record the names of Jacob's children, the author of Shemot instructs a reader that names carry images and hopes, but the name we earn is the one by which we are recognized by God.

What's in a name? The lines in "Lechol Ish Yesh Shem — Each of Us Has a Name," by the modern Israeli poet Zelda (1914-1984), sum up the answer:

"Each of us has a name/given by God/and given by our parents…Each of us has a name/given by our celebrations/and given by our work/Each of us has a name/given by the seasons/and given by our blindness/Each of us has a name/given by the sea/and given by/our death."