And these are the “Names” of the children of Israel who came into Mitzrayim (Egypt).
Shemos/Names is the name of this portion and the name of the second book of the Torah; Exodus is formally identified as Shemos/Names. Why are the names of the tribes so significant that they are prominently mentioned right at the outset of Exodus? Why does the text not simply state, “And these are the people …etc”?
The Midrash gives two reasons: 1) the Jewish People, though immersed in the abyss of exile for more than 200 years, did not abandon their Holy names. This powerful identity retained their uniqueness and defied assimilation – “Reuven and Shimon descended into exile – Reuven and Shimon came out of exile”; and 2) just as G-d gives names to the stars, giving them individual importance, so too are G-d’s beloved children given names. Something named is not forgotten having been given specific importance.
Names are actually a very external and seemingly superficial aspect of a person. In fact, a name is only necessary for others to identify and relate to you. One’s name does not express his essence, true character, or inner being. In some instances, people are given their identity by a faceless simple number, an integer without any depth or personality.
This is precisely the message of the Torah. Only the names of the Jewish People, their externality, was drowning in exile. The essence – inner identity of the Jew, remains untouched, uncontaminated and unphased by exile. Their essence remains at all times connected with its origin – G-d Almighty Himself.
From another perspective, a name relates to the innermost essence of a person. That’s why we use a person’s name to beseech blessings; Parents are given the name of their child by Divine inspiration; and when a person is in a state of fainting, yelling his name brings him back to awareness.
The Jewish name also gives an unusual label to the carrier of the name. It not only names the body, but actually identifies the soul, giving it such importance that it cannot be forgotten or forsaken. It may be why the diabolical Nazis (may their memory be erased) gave our brothers and sisters numbers instead of names.
The Jewish Name is a handle by which G-d continues to hold onto us like a lifeline in a raging sea which does not allow us to sink or drown. As more and more in our society find it fashionable to relate to traditional and ancestral names, try bringing your own Jewish name into personal circulation. Though it may only seem to be a superficial handle, it connects to our innermost being and Jewish identity. That is why Exodus from exile is intrinsically connected with our Names.
Have a good Shabbos and a great week!
Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar