July 24, 2024
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The title of this week’s parsha and the entire book of the Torah is “Shemot.” Shemot means “names.” For some strange reason, this is typically known as the Book of Exodus. However, if you look at the literal translation, why wasn’t it called the Book of Names? Second, the parsha begins by recounting the names of the children of Israel who went down to Egypt. Yet, these names were already related to us in Bereishit (46:8-27). Why repeat this again?

In truth, if Shemot were just about the story of the Exodus, it should have ended after the story regarding the parting of the sea. The Rambam suggests that the Book of Bereishit tells us the story of the seed of the Jewish nation. The Book of Shemot, it seems, focuses on the development of that seed into a full tree, a nation that is set to fulfill its destiny. We are still left with the question of why the Torah, here and elsewhere, lists the names of our patriarchs and matriarchs repeatedly? Why does the Torah feel this to be of great importance? In essence, we need to ask ourselves, what is in a name?

Rabbi Berel Wein suggests that the names of our ancestors are drummed into us by the Torah to provide us with a sense of continuity and tradition. The Midrash teaches us that by not forgetting their original names, by not completely becoming Egyptian, the Jewish people were able to cling to their culture and traditions. This made them worthy to be redeemed and freed. The names of their ancestors reminded them of their past and of the commitment of Hashem to redeem them from their bondage and afflictions. It was the existence and use of those names that prevented their extinction as a special and eternal people.

How we refer to ourselves, even as simply as by name, has a profound impact on our self-perception. For example, there is the famous story in Megillat Ruth (1:20) where Ruth’s mother-in-law is depressed and despondent. She tells everyone in Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi, the pleasant one, rather, call me Mara, the embittered one.” By changing her name, she now embodies these new characteristics of despondency and hopelessness.

The Talmud in Brachot (7b) quotes R’ Elazar who stated that the name of a person has an effect on his actions. The name reflects the purpose and essence of his soul in the world. R’ Meir used to size up a person’s character by paying close attention to their name (Yoma 83b). The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah (16b) suggests that if a person changes his name he can change his fate. That is where the idea originated that a severely ill person should change their name.

If a person calls themselves a “loser” and believes that they are worthless, they will most likely remain worthless and never amount to anything. (This week, for example, I had a patient tell me to call her “Murphy.” She explained that, like Murphy’s law, anything that can go wrong happens to her.) Similarly, if a person has ambition, calls themselves a “winner” and can picture themselves as an achiever, it is more likely that they will be successful.

Often in life we are only limited by our own expectations. Our self-image is like a thermostat. If we set the standard too low and think of ourselves as mediocre, never expecting to succeed, thinking we will not accomplish much, that is probably as far as we will ever get. On the other hand, if we have higher standards and expect to be successful and accomplished, the odds are we will probably do much better in life. Our mental image of ourselves may, indeed, set our own limitations.

Names can therefore be an anchor to one’s own self-worth and purpose in life. The Torah’s insistence on recording the names of the sons of Yaakov, the eventual tribes of Israel, highlights this important fact of life and family to us. It reminds us of our heritage and traditions. It helps keep us connected to our unique values.

May Hashem help all of us reach our greatest potentials as we follow in the traditions of our Jewish ancestors. All we may need is a positive vision, some hope and a good name to live up to.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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