This week we begin reading the second book of the Chumash. Our Rabbis refer to it as Sefer Hageulah, The Book of Redemption. This name aptly describes the main topics and themes contained within: The redemption from Egyptian slavery, which is only fully realized with the construction of the Tabernacle at the end of the book.
However most of us are more familiar with the second book of the Chumash as Sefer Shemot, literally “The Book of Names”. Besides being one of the first words of the first Parsha in the book, are there any further lessons we can derive from the name “Shemot”?
The Medrash (Vayikra Rabba) writes that one of the merits that the Jewish People accumulated throughout their years of slavery is the fact that they never changed their names. They kept their Jewish names as a way of reminding themselves that they were not part of the majority, dominant culture of
Egypt. Their Jewish names reinforced the idea that The
Jewish People came from a different culture and from ancestors that had a
unique relationship with G-d. Names have the power to remind us of who we are
and from where we come. It is no accident that there is a widespread Jewish
custom to name babies after ancestors, whether deceased or still living.
But names have a future orientation as well. In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names. Rashi (on 15:5) introduces the concept of “Shem Gorem”: that a person’s name can have an impact on their destiny. Avram and Sarai would never have children. But with new names Hashem informs Avraham and Sarah that they were now ready to be parents. Names can identify a person with a unique mission and destiny.
This future oriented aspect of names needs to be reinforced. A person or institution can attain a “name”, or reputation in one of two ways: based on past performance or as a hope and challenge for future achievement. Too often we hastily attach negative names to people or institutions based on past experiences. For example, a student that has performed poorly in the past may be branded with a certain negative name, but that student may improve dramatically if given positive reinforcement and labeled in a good way (ie given a new name). The same is true of adults and institutions. As we begin the book of Shemot, let us realize that names not only connect us to our past, but they can help shape our future.