What’s in a name? That’s the question coloring this week’s parashah, Sh’mot, as we open the book of Exodus this week. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Isaachar, Zeubulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.” (Ex. 1:1-4) Through the familiar names of the brothers of Joseph, our text creates a bridge between the closing narrative of Genesis and the beginnings of our oppression as slaves in Egypt. It then moves quickly to introduce a new character, Pharaoh. “Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile … they multiplied and increased greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” (Ex:1:6-8) Joseph’s name and legacy mean little to this new leader, a man intimidated by the sheer number of Hebrews in his kingdom.
And so a system is established – one known far too well by cultures and societies throughout the generations – of the powerful oppressing the weak; of one group’s potential constrained and controlled by another. Our ancestors enter into slavery under the rule of the Egyptians, which eventually gives way to the killing of newborn Hebrew boys, which eventually introduces us to Moses, father of our liberation. Moses quickly becomes an adopted son to Pharaoh’s daughter, growing up in the palace of the very person who first ordered his death. Moses then reaches a pivotal moment of morality, striking down an Egyptian guard whose abuse of a Hebrew slave churned in Moses like a fire. He soon flees to the land of Midian and the house of Jethro, marring his daughter Tziporah and establishing a life in the wilderness.
We soon come to experience the first meeting of God and Moses at the Burning Bush and with this encounter we witness the early beginnings of our Exodus story. In Genesis 3:13 as the bush is alight with fire but not consumed, Moses – struck by this overwhelming sight – asks God to share God’s name – “the people will ask ‘what is this God of yours’ name?’ What should I say to them?” And God responds to Moses, “ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I will be what I will be.” This name is, to this rabbi, the most resonant, honest and sacred moment of clarity in all of Torah. God does not respond “My name is God,” the way most of us would introduce ourselves to someone new. Rather, God chooses to share with Moses – and, really, with us – that God’s identity is always growing, always evolving, and is in the process of becoming its ultimate self. Similarly, we humans are always growing and evolving as we make our way through life. For God to identify God’s self – in this premiere moment of the most significant story in our collective Jewish identity – as ever-evolving, still on its way to becoming what it fully is, is breathtaking. It also returns us to our initial question, what’s in a name?
This past weekend we honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His name, for us modern Jews, is synonymous with civil rights and social justice. His name evokes recognition of Selma, of marches, and “I Have a Dream.” Like God, Moses, and Joseph before him, MLK’s name has become over time a symbol of something greater than him alone: a reminder of the power of our words, actions and deeds. A harbinger of hope, equality and grace. A lesson to children and adults alike that we all possess innate strength to do what is right and just in the world. As we enter a new chapters of Torah, life and American government this week, let us remember the potential and power of a name.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen