There’s something about a name. We love when people call us by our names, especially if the person calling us is someone we love or someone we consider important. It reminds us that we matter.
But are names that important?
I once heard someone compare a name to a door handle. A door only has a handle so that people can open it. If it didn’t need to be opened, it wouldn’t have a handle. Like a door handle, a name only exists so others could reach us.
But the Torah teaches us that there is more to a name.
Regardless whether it’s for an aliya at the Torah or in a casual encounter at the local supermarket, there’s always a sparkle in their eyes whenever people tell me their Jewish names.
One time when I was conducting a holiday program at a local senior home I asked the Jewish residents to tell me their Hebrew names. One woman sat quietly and slightly aloof. She didn’t seem to remember her Hebrew name. Then, about ten minutes later, her face lit up with incredible excitement and she shouted out “Chaya Baila.” For several years after, each time I saw her and said “hello Chaya Baila” her face would light up with tremendous joy and vigor.
The Hebrew name for this week’s Torah portion and the entire second book of the Torah is Sh’mot. In English the book it is called “Exodus” which means “departure,” but the word “Sh’mot” actually means “names. The Torah portion of Sh’mot tells how, after years of living under noble conditions, the children of Israel are transformed into the slaves of Pharaoh, leading to years of immense suffering and oppression.
Naming our portion and the entire second book of the Torah “Sh’mot” has deep significance and is relevant to the entire narrative of the Egyptian exile.
The Talmud teaches that names describe the nature of a person. The Mystics explain that names are not only descriptive of personality, but of the soul. In fact, the Talmud often looks to a name to seek insight to character and the Talmud cautions parents to avoid naming their children after the wicked.
Our souls in heaven are nameless spiritual creatures, submerged entirely in the God they serve. They have no separate identity that can be named or that requires one. Yet, as the soul descends to this world and enters the body, it takes on an identity, and this identity is captured and described by the Hebrew name.
So while a name may not tell us much about the specific person we’re calling, especially when so many people share the same name, since our identity, the external dimension of our soul, is linked to our essence, it touches us on the deepest level when our name is called.
In narrating our descent into Egypt, the Torah highlights the Jewish names of the original descendants, emphasizing the fact that they didn’t change their names while in Egypt. As the Midrash teaches us, the Jewish people were redeemed from exile because they did not change their names. They came as Reuven and Shimon and they departed as Reuven and Shimon.
Although during the Egyptian exile most of the Jewish people followed Egyptian paganism and were not faithful to Jewish practice, they retained their Jewish names. In doing so, they reminded themselves of their true essence. They reminded themselves that exile is only a state of concealment and that the true identity and destiny of one’s soul is always intact. This not only gave them the strength to deal with the exile, but it actually allowed them to reach a state of redemption.
At a Passover Seder, led by the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, the rebbe was asked, “If we are still in exile, what is the point of discussing the liberation from Egypt?” To which the rebbe responded, “It reminds us that we have the ability to leave.”
This Shabbat, as we begin reading the book of Sh’mot, let us remind ourselves of the importance of using our Jewish names in the context of exile and especially today, as Israel and the civilized world face some serious challenges.
Let us be encouraged to use our Jewish names more often. Like the children of Israel during the Egyptian slavery, we too can find strength and inspiration from the awareness of our true identity found in our names, as individuals and collectively as the people of Israel. It will remind us that we have an inner strength and ability to overcome our challenges and I believe it will ultimately lead us and the entire world to a true and complete redemption.