Monday, December 16, 2013

“Call me Freedom!”

Parshat Sh’mot
18 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 20-21, 2013
Sh’mot 1:1 – 6:1

“Call me Freedom!”
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I have a simple question this week. Why is the name of the second book of the Torah called Sh’mot in Hebrew and Exodus in English? Sh’mot means names and of course, Exodus refers to freedom. As we say in Hebrew, “Mah Hakesher?” What is the connection?
The simple answer is that there is not a real connection. The book begins with the verse, “And these are the NAMES of the Children of Israel…” Thus the first portion of the book is called NAMES, making the book itself titled NAMES. This is standard practice – in Hebrew, each book of the Torah is named after the first portion of that book. In English, we use more thematically oriented names. Thus, this book is about the nation of Israel leaving Egypt in an epic journey, an Exodus in fact! The second book of the Torah is therefore called Exodus. Simple enough.

And of course, there are always deeper levels and connection to look at.

The ancient storytellers of Torah (aka The Rabbis) shared that during the time of slavery, the Israelite nation was steeped in deep assimilation. They were hanging on to their identities by mere threads. These threads though were just enough to keep their faith and connection with God alive, meriting God’s intervention. One of these “threads” was that the nation of Israel kept their Hebrew names passed down generation to generation, reminding them that even though they lived in Egypt and were currently slaves, ultimately they were non-Egyptian free people.

When I was 14 or 15 I left Yeshivah to go to public school. When I was sitting with the guidance counselor at the Yeshivah before I left she said, “Well, with a name like Zvi, you will always remember you are Jewish.” Cheesy, but true. Years later, I am sitting writing a D’var Torah as the Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling of an international Jewish organization. My 15 year old self is completely baffled.

The NAMES of the Israelite people perhaps provided the cultural continuity to not get completely lost amongst the degrading identity imposed by the Egyptians.

This is a great week to think about your name and contemplate its roots. Does your name spark a memory of a beloved family member? An interesting story? Do you not feel very connected to the meaning of your name? Perhaps it’s time for a name adjustment or some deeper exploration.


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