As a mohel, I am often asked for input and advice when parents are choosing their newborn son’s name. The inquiries could be regarding the meaning of a name and its connotations, whether the name they like is appropriate, if it’s okay to name after someone who died due to illness, God forbid, and other questions. Traditionally, the name of a Jewish baby boy is given at the time of the bris, the circumcision, after the procedure is completed and blessings are given to the baby and his parents. This is the time when the neshama, the Godly soul, enters into the baby and a name is intrinsically connected to the soul.
But what’s really in a name?
Shemot, this week’s Torah portion, starts by counting each of the names of the descendants of Israel that went to Egypt. Our Sages ask, why does our parshah count them, if they were already counted in the previous parshahs? Why do they need to be counted again?
The Midrash offers two answers.
First, this teaches that after 210 years of exile in Egypt, slavery, and torture, the Hebrews kept their Jewish names and did not assimilate. They went down to Egypt with those names and they returned with the same Jewish names.
The other response is based on Isaiah (40:26): “He Who counts the stars, calls them all by name”. The Jews are compared to the stars. When we count something, it is to appreciate its value. As the Hebrews were about to begin and endure the long Exile, they were counted, to ensure they won’t be lost and forgotten. By giving them a name, they become eternal like stars.
When two answers are offered in response to the same question, there has to be a connection between them. In our case, the connection is that the strength that made it possible for the Hebrews to go through the hard Exile without assimilating came from the counting and naming they received. We see from this that a name has a special power. A name is not just a way to identify someone. Your name defines your identity and the way you are in life. According to Kabbalah, the name is the channel in which a person receives his spiritual energy.
Perhaps now we can understand why this parshah (and the second book of the Torah) has such an apparently irrelevant title, which seems to not adequately represent the story of the Exodus. Our names are deeply connected to our essence and have a big influence in who we are and what we do. Our names are not just ID tags. They define us and mark us forever.
It’s written that in merit of three things, our ancestors were redeemed from slavery in Egypt: because they kept their Hebrew names, their language, and their traditional clothing.
When sharing this with parents of a newborn, the choosing of the name takes a whole new dimension. It’s not just about your favorite artist or a melodic pronunciation. It’s about facilitating and giving over to your newborn child the qualities for him to be a good person that will reach personal fulfillment and be able to help others. Similarly, when we name after deceased family members, in addition to honoring our loved ones, it is with the intention that our child will inherit the positive character traits from that person. In the same way that the keeping of Jewish names in Exile was the cause for redemption from Egypt, may our continued keeping of Jewish names bring the ultimate redemption, with the coming of Mashiach, Amen.