Our tradition teaches that each of us has three names: the one we are given at birth, the one we are called, and our real name. The task of each person, according to the tradition, is to discover our real name.
This week we begin a new book of the Hebrew Bible, Sh’mot (Exodus). It takes its name from the important word in the first sentence. The Rabbis tell us that the name of the parashah—and in this case, the whole book—is not just an accident of the first sentence. Instead, the name captures the essence of the book.
“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob . . . Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah . . . “ (Exodus 1:1)—the list goes on. “The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy . . . Joseph died, and all his brothers and that generation . . .” (1:5–6).
One commentary focuses on each of these names, interpreting each one to be connected to our future deliverance (see Sh’mot Rabbah 1:5). So, even as we entered Egypt, our own names carried the seeds of redemption. Another commentary explains that we were redeemed from Egypt because we never assimilated, never changed our names (M’chilta Bo 5).
But the irony of the Torah portion is that there are so many unnamed, including the heroes. Consider the following:
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a woman of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him . . . put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile . . . . ” (Exodus 2:1–4)
A certain man? A Levite woman? A sister? The Torah only later tells us their names: Amram, Jocheved, Miriam (6:20, 15:20). The daughter of Pharaoh? She remains nameless in Torah; the Rabbis, generations later, named her Batya, “daughter of God.” (see The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Ezkenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 325). Even the Pharaoh who forgot Joseph’s name is unnamed (1:8).
The first to be named are Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrews (1:15–16). After Pharaoh, they are the first to speak in the story. What compels them to speak is their disobedience of Pharaoh’s decree. The Torah, using the expression for the first time, tells us that they were “fearing God” (1:17).Others before them were described as God-fearing, but the midwives “do” God-fearing—they act out of their connection to God by choosing to preserve life. It is not completely clear from the Hebrew whether they are Hebrew midwives or midwives to the Hebrews. Playing off the first possibility, one midrash identifies them as Jocheved and Miriam (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b). Other commentary suggests they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, might be Egyptian women (see Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus) [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1976], pp. 33–35).
It is through a conspiracy of women reaching across religion, class, and race that a baby boy is saved. He is named Moses (Hebrew, Mosheh) by the daughter of Pharaoh because, “I drew him out of the water.” The explanation is not an accurate etymology; a closer meaning would be “one who draws out.” Most commentators belief this is a prophetic hint that Moses will be the one to draw us out of Mitzrayim, Egypt, which means the “narrow place.”
But there is another interpretation. Moses is the one who draws God out, and gives us a name that can liberate us from our own narrow places, a name that can help us discover our own real names.
God calls Moses from a bush that burns without being consumed to send him to Pharaoh to free the Israelites:
Moses said to God: “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” continuing, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’ ” And God said further to Moses, “Thus you shall speak to the Israelites: ‘The Eternal, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob—has sent me to you:
This shall be My name forever,
This My appellation for eternity.’” (Exodus 3:13–15)
Ehyeh is the first-person singular of the verb “to be.” It seems to be the future tense, but it isn’t totally clear how it ought to be translated. Is it “I am” or “I will be”? Or is it “I cause to be? Is it an answer or an intentional obfuscation? Or is it a challenge?
Rashi tells us: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh means “I will be [with them in this trouble] what I will be [with them in future bondages].” For Ramban, it means: “As you are with Me so I am with you. If you open your hands to give charity, so I will open My hands as is said, ‘God will open for you God’s goodly treasure.” (Deuteronomy 28:12). Aviva Zornberg, citing Maharal, has another interpretation: “God’s being is a being- with—‘I shall be with you.’ It will always respond to the needs of the human, to the specific quality of the human cry. The particular idiom of a particular time, a particular place, a particular conception of God will draw forth an answering sense of redemption. From Moses’s viewpoint this name of God is not a name at all; it yields nothing constant, nothing knowable through all vicissitudes. It is contingent, the very figure of human desire—a fluid dynamic name, it expresses the First Person form of God’s name, addressing the human, involved in dialogue with the human. It changes constantly as humans beings find and lose relationship with God.” (Aviva Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture; [New York: Doubleday, 2001], p.74)
There is no record that Moses ever reports the name to the Israelites. Maybe Moses asked just for himself. What Moses learned is what each of us can learn: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh: I am in the process of becoming who I am. I am never completely stuck in the mitzrayim, “the narrow places” of my life. I am always in relationship with others and with God, and it is through responding to the needs of others that I become more fully the image of God.
Each of us has three names: the one we are given at birth, the one we are called, and our real name. We discover our real name when we connect God’s name to our lives.
Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.