The Concept of Preserving Jewish Names
It is written, “These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; each man and his household came” (Shemot 1:1).
This verse seems to require an explanation. Why does it begin with, “These are the names”? If Scripture wanted to enumerate them, it should have said: “These are the sons of Israel who came into Egypt.” Why the insistence on names, especially since in Hebrew the entire book is called Shemot (“Names”)? Whoever reads the Chumash can only be surprised by this, for where are “the names” that is the main point of this book? Would it not have been better for this book to be called “Exodus from Egypt,” or something along these lines? Why call it Shemot?
Our Sages have examined this question in the Midrash: “Rav Huna said in the name of Bar Kaparah, ‘For four merits the Israelites were delivered from Egypt: Because they did not change their names, because they did not change their language, because they did not inform against one another, and because none of them was depraved’ ” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 4:25). Hence this is what Scripture stresses by stating, “These are the names of the sons of Israel,” namely that preserving these names is what caused them to be delivered from Egypt.
Yet this is precisely where the difficulty lies: Is the importance of a name so great that having preserved their names is what earned them deliverance?
This teaches us that it is not without reason that the Creator “placed names in the land” (Berachot 7b on Tehillim 46:9), for the names of the Children of Israel – Jewish names – have deeply sanctified roots. As the Sages explain in regards to the names of the twelve tribes (Berachot 7b), and as the commentators explain on this Gemara (see the Maharsha and others), although Leah was not a prophetess, prophesy came upon her when she named her children. We also know from our holy books that a certain degree of prophesy is involved when we name our children, for a person’s character traits are alluded to in his or her name, and there is no name that does not have a meaning.
Furthermore, in explaining this verse according to Kabbalah, the Arizal reveals that it deals with this world and the world of souls. He writes: “These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt – these are the names of holiness that came down into this world, which is called Mitzraim [Egypt]; with Jacob; each man and his household came – all names are accompanied by the holy Patriarchs, whose names originate from Torah secrets, which accompany the Children of Israel when they descend into this world.”
Still on the subject of the greatness of a name given to a person at birth, as we know, when the soul arrives in Heaven after 120 years on earth, it is asked for its name. At that point, a special segula is required for it to remember its name and to say it. This is why we usually recite, at the end of the Amidah, a verse that begins with the first letter of our name and ends with the last letter. This contains profound secrets.
We now understand that this is precisely the case in this week’s parsha. The greatness of the Children of Israel stemmed from the fact that they did not change their names. That is what protected them, and that is why they did not perish, nor did any of them assimilate in Egypt. The “names” of the Children of Israel were the spiritual foundations with which they descended into Egypt, accompanied by their father Jacob, names that remained with them and protected their identity.
This is how Jews have conducted themselves in every generation, and a Jewish custom is from Torah. They have always named their children in connection to the parsha of the week or some event, the basis of all this being to bring down the sanctity connected to the person mentioned in the parshiot, such as Moshe, Aaron, Miriam, and so on.
We need to carefully examine the verse in question: “These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; each man and his household came” (Shemot 1:1). This seems to contain a mistake, for the term habaim Mitzrayma (literally, “coming into Egypt”) is in the present tense, whereas “each man and his household came” is in the past tense. Why the present and past tense in the same verse?
This teaches us that these names, which we currently give to our children, are names that have already come into the world, names whose origins lay in the heights of sanctity.
However we have not fully resolved the question. Was all this something mystical, the fact that their names protected them? Perhaps there was something more to it?
Before explaining this, let us think a little about the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt from a spiritual point of view. When they descended into Egypt, they numbered 70 people, a single family. They were closely united and fulfilled all the mitzvot of the Torah, the easiest as well as the hardest. At the time, Egypt was known as a country immersed in immorality, “whose issue is like that of horses” (Ezekiel 23:20). Although Egypt was filled with depravity and sorcery, the Children of Israel were stronger than this harmful influence. Following Joseph’s advice, they went to live in Goshen, where they formed a kind of Jewish enclave within the heart of Egypt itself, which was filled with idolatry and perversion. In a short time, these 70 people greatly multiplied, and the more numerous they become, the more they “filled the land.” That entire generation passed away, Jacob and his children, as well as those who came after them. Thus a new king arose, one who had not known Joseph, and years of enslavement and suffering ensued, years of forced labor. Egypt, immoral and idolatrous, had become an empire – an empire of sorcery and magic – which constituted its strength and glory. Tremendous spiritual blindness reigned in Egypt, and little by little the Children of Israel were also influenced by it. Hence they began to frequent places of entertainment and to celebrate popular holidays, as the Midrash states. The Children of Israel therefore “descended” – their descent into Egypt was a frightening descent – and little by little the outward Jewish identity of the Children of Israel began to disappear. In fact it reached such a point that when they left Egypt, the ministering angels sought to understand how the Children of Israel differed from the Egyptians, saying: “These are idolaters, and those are idolaters.”
The desire to resemble the Egyptians, as well as the burden of forced labor and complete enslavement to Pharaoh and his henchmen, made them lose their heads and prevented them from maintaining their own identity. In fact when Moshe first addressed them, they did not listen to him at all due to “shortness of spirit and hard labor” (Shemot 6:9). Yet during all that time, they preserved their names, they did not inform on one another, and none of them was depraved. How did they do this?
There is only one answer: Through Jewish pride.