As 2018 wanes and 2019 is glimpsed on the horizon, so too the transition from Genesis to Exodus, Bereshith to Shemot in our honored cycle of the Torah occurs. Exodus will open with these simple words: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…” Truth be told, I had wanted to write a very different article earlier in preparation for publication. But then two things happened. First, the shooting of 11 of our sisters and brothers in Pittsburgh and second, the death of my father.
How uncanny that just a day before my father died, I was participating in the amazing community event honoring those lost in Pittsburgh because it was there that I first heard the recitation of those 11 names. These were people we never met, yet we were compelled to keep their names front and center. What occurred to me a day later, when my father passed away, was that their names and the way in which they now would be remembered were forever changed by the events of the previous Shabbat morning. No longer, just remembered by family and friends. Those names now belonged to a much larger group of mourners, a larger family.
I had intended to open my thoughts for this article with the words of the poet Zelda (translated by William Cutter, Laurence Hoffman and Benje Ellen Schiller) “L’chol ish yesh shem…” – “each person has a name” – and to weave what I hoped would be a meaningful allusion to Parashat Shemot. After all it is in this portion that the text refers to again as “Joseph” although his name had been changed to accommodate his Egyptian office. The opening verses of Shemot poetically connect Genesis to stories that will unfold in Exodus. But then, in almost a startling way, the second paragraph of Shemot tells us that a new, unnamed ruler summarily erases Joseph’s name from Egyptian history.
In her poem Zelda reminds us that besides the name we receive at birth, other things name us as well – even the names given us by our enemies. Keeping her sentiments in mind, what I think we can learn from the transition from Bereshith to Shemot that our names, like our lives, are actually dynamic entities. As with Joseph and the new Pharaoh we cannot always rely on our old names to carry us through but we must also grow and if not otherwise, metaphorically and continually change our names. Nothing is fixed. As the great commentator Rashi observed, “Ayn lanu shem kavua” – “we have not fixed names.” Our names change all depending upon the service we are commanded to carry out as we complete the errand with which we are charged.” Even if we don’t actually change the name given to us at birth, we can certainly change the images others have of us, or we have of ourselves.
A difficult lesson of Parashat Shemot and perhaps throughout the entire book of Exodus is that change sometimes requires us to endure great hardship and adversity. The name B’nei Yisrael will look the same on paper but being players in history, our ancestors’ status as a welcomed clan gave way to the hysterical fears of a ruler who names them a threat. In the time that has elapsed since Joseph, the tribes become “a people” persecuted and, it seems, a people without hope to redeem their name. It will take divine intervention and an irreplaceable leader to help out our enslaved ancestors as this new and different kind of creation story unfolds. Who the children of Israel will become through the prism of slavery, exodus and eventually as the recipients of Torah, will bring forth an entirely different but amazing collective persona. But this, in my own life, I had learned from my father.
As well, my father’s death connects to Zelda’s closing verses: “We each have a name given celebrations and given by our work … given by the seasons and given by our death.” Hearing his name chanted with the recitation of the El Male Rachimim prayer was a most important reminder that who we are is not a series of letters but the character and soul we bring forth from a place within each of us that in the end may defy naming. May Parashat Shemot inspire you as you consider what names each of you will choose as you walk forward in life. In the end, what we should all hope for is to have our names – like Joseph, like the eleven, like my father – remembered for a blessing.
Cantor Karen Berman is with Congregation Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Fox Point.