Sh’mot teaches about the beauty of our deeds

BY RABBI LANE STEINGER

The title of this week’s Parashah is the same as that of the Book we begin publicly reading this Shabbat. It is “Sh’mot/Names.” Although the major focus of this Torah Portion is the depiction of how the extended family of Jacob/Israel and Joseph falls from its lofty status at the end of Genesis, becomes enslaved, oppressed and abused in Egypt, and is in need of divine redemption from bondage, Sidrah Sh’mot is punctuated by episodes which center on names.

Sh’mot (both the Book–also known as Sefer Y’tziat Mitzrayim or Exodus — and the Parashah) opens with the words “V’eileh sh’mot b’nei Yisrael ha’ba’im mitzray’mah/And these are the names of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt…” [Exodus 1:1]. Later in the narrative, after the enslavement we are told that Pharaoh’s daughter saved a baby boy found floating in a basket in the bulrushes of the Nile, “and she called his name Moses” [2:10]. After the grown Moses fled to Midian and married Zipporah, she bore him a son, and “he called his name Gershom” [2:22].

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While tending the flock of his father-in-law in the wilderness, Moses was called and charged by God to go to back to Egypt, to have audience with Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites to freedom. Moses demurred. One of his objections is presented as follows:

Moses said to God, When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, “What is God’s name?” what shall I say to them?’ Then God said to Moses, “Eh’yeh asher eh’yeh/I am what I am. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, Eh’yeh/I am has sent me to you.” God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Eternal, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This shall be My Name forever; and this My Appellation from generation to generation” [3:23-25].

In commenting on these verses, the Midrash records a fascinating opinion: ‘Rabbi Abba bar Memel said, “The Holy One, be praised, said to Moses, You seek to know My Name? I am called according to My deeds…” [Exodus Rabah 3:6].’ The names of human beings also attract the attention of our Talmudic Sages, and similarly to bar Memel’s teaching the emphasis is on the actions which lead to a person’s acquired name, his/her reputation. Consider these rabbinic dicta. “It was taught: every person has three names, one given by parents, one used by others, and the one” s/he earns personally” [Kohelet Rabah 7:1:3]. ‘Rabbi Shimon said, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name surpasses them all” [Avot 4:13].’

To be sure, in the long line of our Jewish tradition there are manifold praises for the “shem tov/good name.” “The goodness of a name is better than precious oil,” wrote Kohelet [7:1], and in the Book of Proverbs we read, “A good name is to be chosen above great riches” [22:1]. For me, one of the most inspired and inspiring Jewish teachings also is an interpretation of part of this week’s Torah Reading:

Rabbi Yosi ben Haninah said, “There are people whose names are beautiful but whose deeds are ugly, there are those whose names are ugly but whose deeds are beautiful, there are those who names and whose deeds are ugly, and there are those whose names and deeds are beautiful…” [Midrash Tanhuma, Sh’mot 2, page 63a.].

I think Rabbi Yosi and all the builders of Judaism would have us perform beautiful actions even if we have ugly given names. Let us resolve, then, to live in 2010 so as to earn beautiful reputations because of the beauty of our deeds. Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.