Last week in the Jewish world of Torah study we began reading the Book Shemot, called in English (or Greek, actually) “Exodus”. We know very well what is going to happen here: the Israelites, who moved to Egypt to escape a famine, have now found themselves enslaved in the service of constructing massive Pharaonic building projects. Everything started going south when a new King arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. (Ex. 1.8)
How could Joseph, and all he did for Egypt’s survival, have been forgotten? And what does it mean to say that his name was no longer known?
Names are significant here; the Hebrew term for the book of Exodus is Shemot, “Names”; very simply, the book is identified by the topic addressed in the opening verses: These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt….(Ex.1.1).
Yet names are not incidental to the destiny of the Israelites, nor to their redemption, in this saga. A midrash asserts that The people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt for four reasons.
The first two reasons are that they did not change their Hebrew names while in Egypt and they did not change their language, but continued to speak in Hebrew (Lev. Rabbah 32:5).
To have a Hebrew name is to be part of the Jewish people in a formal way. When someone converts to Judaism, they are given a Hebrew name. All Jews are called to the Torah, and remembered in the grave-side prayer El Maleh Rahamim, by their Hebrew names.
Hebrew names carry much more than a few words of Hebrew (or Yiddish, or Ladino). For Jews, our Hebrew names are a way of communicating much more than the name; it hints at all that communicates, carries and guards Jewish identity.
The Israelites were redeemed from slavery, we are told, because they held on to their Hebrew names, and the memory of history, culture and identity evoked by names.
The real message of the Book we have just begun again for this year’s Torah cycle is that one can never be enslaved by the majority culture unless one lets go of the memory of one’s own name, and where it comes from, and how it was passed along. Jewish memory is the key to Jewish freedom – and freedom, in the Torah, means the freedom to struggle, to wander, and to confront what it takes to become a people.
What is your Hebrew name? what does it mean? what does it carry? how does it anchor your Jewish identity?