1998Commonly called "Exodus," its Hebrew name is Shemot, "Names." Why "Names?"
A Book by Any Other Name
The easy answer, while insufficient, is worth knowing. The first verse of the Book of Exodus reads, "These are the names of the sons of Israel who went down into Egypt." As Genesis is known in Hebrew by its first word, Bereshit, so Exodus is known by its first noun.
But why does the story of redemption from slavery begin with a list of names? Rashi's answer, while insufficient, is worth knowing. Rashi maintains that the naming indicates God's love and concern for the Israelites whom Torah implicitly compares to the stars of the sky whose coming out and night and returning at day is accomplished by God's calling them each by name (See Isaiah 40:26 which Rashi adduces as proof.).
Is being called by name necessarily a sign of love? Anyone who has ever heard their name intoned by an angry or aggrieved superior (parent, teacher, commanding officer) knows that when the other possesses your name they have a kind of access to you, a power over you. Interestingly, love often alters the given name by producing a married name, a nickname, a title, an endearment.
Consider for a moment how the Bard allows young Juliet to speak the lover's sense of nomenclature:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I'll no longer be a Capulet...
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy,
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face, O be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet ...
(Romeo and Juliet II: 1)
Now compare Juliet's poetic privileging of essence over language with a curious observation made by the Mechilta, a first century commentary to the Book of Exodus. The Sages wonder how Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt for "one may not receive a reward without first performing a deed." What deed (that is, mitzvah) could justify God's liberation of the slaves? What had they done to deserve it?
Rabbi Eliezer HaKapar taught that the Israelites in fact adhered to four mitzvot and thus earned their redemption. These were: 1) they were chaste, 2) they refrained from gossip and slander, 3) they did not change their names, 4) they did not change their language.
They did not change their names!?
Is that fulfillment of a mitzvah? Don't Jews always change their names? Will you change your name when you marry? Would you Hebraize your name were you to emigrate to Israel? Do you know Woody Allen's given name?
Isn't changing your name sometimes the right thing to do? Rambam, for example, rules in his Laws of Repentance (2: 4) that one who wants to change his way of living should begin by changing his name as if saying, "I am other. I am not the man who did these ugly deeds." Didn't Sarah, Abraham, and Jacob undergo major name changes?
Willy nilly we seem to have stumbled onto a minefield of meaning too vast and interconnected for an amateur like me to sweep clean. You think I exagerate? Then consider:
1) The term "Semite" derives from the name of Noah's son, Shem, which means "name."
2) Because God has a name that no one knows how to utter, Jews often reefer to God simply as HaShem, that is, "The Name."
3) "The study of Kabbalah requires knowing and meditating on the different attributes and Names of God." (See p. xvii, Translator's Introduction to Gates of Light, by Avi Weinstein.)
So why does the tale of enslavement and redemption begin with a list of names? Why do we call the book that recounts this history "Names?" A guess: In Avot 1:13 Hillel warns that "one who would make his name big will lose his name." The loss of name, anomie, is the great Jewish curse. Yad VaShem (See Isaiah 56: 5 on the term Yad Vashem) in Jerusalem is the place where the namelessness of the Holocaust is undone. Rabbi Durkheim's son, Emile, saw anomie as the root cause for suicide. See his book, Suicide. When speaking of Haman or Hitler, a Jew will often insert the phrase "Yimach Shmo," "May his name be wiped out."
The names of the slaves in Egypt had been eclipsed. Thus in the early chapters of Shmot the only names that appear are the names of the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah. No name, no life. Exodus then records the process of the recovery of Name.
Herein no doubt lies a book (but see Ecclesiastes 12: 12).
Prepared by Rabbi James Ponet, Yale University Hillel