Parashat Sh'mot

The Book of Names

Our names are our essence.

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The alienation brought by such an appellation facilitated their removal from society, an important stage whose ultimate consequence was concentration camps and the giving of numbers to each individual, utterly obliterating any sense of name at all. Now, numbered like objects in a warehouse, the people were so dehumanized their wholesale slaughter seemed perfectly acceptable.

Names in the Torah

The significance of names in the Torah is apparent from the beginning. Seeking a helpmate for the first man, God brings all of the animals of the world before him, "To see what the man would call them (Genesis 2:18-19)." Before names, the man is alone. The act of naming opens the potential for relationship.

However, the text does not record the names given by man to any of the animals. When woman, the one to whom man can truly relate, is created, he says (Genesis 2:23): "This is bone from my bones, flesh from my flesh, therefore let her be called Ishah (woman) for she was taken out of Ish (man)."

The first name explicated in the Torah is a name of deep, essential connection. Later, the first woman is given an even more specific name--Chava (Eve)--because she is in universal relationship: "the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20)."

Our names are our essence. They are meant to describe what we truly are. If there were no names, what could one person call another? "Hey you: tall guy, smart guy, guy with red hair…" We would have no connection to anyone's true essence. There could be no real relationship.

Why is it that turning people into numbers is such a terrible thought to us? Because removing the name undermines the true nature of humans! Using numbers to tell the difference between one person and another means that I do not care at all about the people I am counting. I just need a way of telling them apart, like apples in a barrel!

That is the destruction of individuality, the destruction of personal meaning, and the destruction of relationship. It is relating to human beings only in terms of functionality, in terms of their usefulness to me, and not at all in terms of who they are, of caring, of relationship.

If the removal of names can lead to the destruction of a people, then the appropriate use of names can bring redemption. God's desire to liberate the slaves is aroused, in part, by the names with which Sh'mot opens. By keeping their Hebrew names during the period of enslavement, the Israelites prevented total assimilation into Egyptian culture. God teaches Moses various Divine names and their meanings to prepare him for his role as liberator.

Humans are brought into the world to give things their essence, their meaning, and their place in the world. When we do this, we truly fulfill our Divine purpose. When we do not, we risk destroying God's world. We must constantly be asking ourselves about our relationships. Are they relationships of love and caring, or are they self-serving and exploitative?

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Udi Hammerman

Udi Hammerman studies psychology and Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University. He also works extensively in outdoor Jewish education with teens and young adults, guiding trips and as part of the Program and Curriculum Development team for Derech Hateva, an association connected with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.