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Parashat Vaeira 5783

January 16, 2023

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The Presence and Absence of Names
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vaeira
By Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Last week’s Torah portion, the first Torah person of the Book of Exodus, is called “Shemot,” which means “names.” And in fact, the Torah portion begins with the names of the sons of Jacob who descended to Egypt and had become the ancestors of the Tribes of Israel. But in a Torah portion which is called “Shemot,” there are relatively few personalities in last week’s Torah portion whose names are listed.

For example, the birth and very early life of the most significant person in the entire Torah are described as follows in last week’s Torah portion: (Exodus 2) “A man from the house of Levi married a woman who was a daughter of Levi. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months” – because there has been a decree that all male Israelite babies be killed. “When she was no longer able to hide him, she made an ark for him, and covered it with pitch, and put it in the reeds by the Nile River. She had the baby’s sister be a lookout to see what would happen to him.”

In that entire passage, no one is referred to by name – not the baby (who will grow up to be Moses), not his parents, and not his sister. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby and adopts him, and later on, after he is weaned, she gives him the name Moshe, or Moses. Rabbinic tradition asks the question: Why do we refer to Moses only by his Egyptian name? Didn’t he have a name that his parents gave him, a name in Hebrew by which he was known in the first months and years of his life? The Talmud and various other rabbinic sources come up with various guesses as to what such a name could have been (see, for example, the discussion in BT Megillah 13a) – but the Torah does not tell us directly the name by which he was known in his earliest life.

The nearly complete absence of names from that passage from last week’s reading may communicate something about the experience of enslavement. The historian and sociologist Orlando Patterson, one of the most prominent scholars of slavery, has written that one tragic component of being enslaved is “social death.” People who are enslaved, in the ancient world and today, are cut off from their families, their traditions, and their individuality. They are treated as interchangeable and expendable; though of course they have names, those who have power over them do not care about their names.

In last week’s Torah portion of Shemot, the enslaved people are not referred to by name. (With one exception: Moses’ brother Aaron is referred to by name, in 4:14 and 4:27ff, but by this point Aaron may have started the process of picturing himself as a free person. It is also debatable whether the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are “Hebrew midwives” or Egyptian “midwives to the Hebrews,” as the Hebrew term ha-meyaldot ha-ivriyot can have both meanings; I am assuming that they are Egyptian women.) The people who are referred to by name, like Shifra and Puah, Jethro, Tziporah, and Moses, are people with the necessary hopefulness to seize control over their own story. Enslaved people are often robbed of this hopefulness.

But something changes in this week’s Torah portion of Vaeira, as the process of redemption has now begun. Parashat Vaeira begins with God revealing God’s true name, perhaps implying that God is setting an example for the enslaved Israelites. And soon we are re-introduced to Moses’ family of origin.  This time, though, we learn that his father’s name is Amram and his mother’s name is Yokheved; we also learn the names of other uncles, cousins, and other relatives (though we will only learn his sister Miriam’s name at a still later point). Could it be that we learn their names only once the Israelites understand that they are moving towards freedom, and as a result, their names are becoming increasingly relevant to their self-perception? Perhaps Parashat Vaeira is the point when the general Israelite population develops the hopefulness necessary to seize control over their own story.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.