Names given and earned

Rabbi Suzanne Brody is Middle School Judaics Coordinator at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Suzanne Brody

Recently, I took my daughter to the ballet. The first thing that she did when she opened the program wasn’t to read the synopsis of the story at the front of the program. She went straight to look at the cast of characters. She wasn’t looking to see what the roles were going to be. She was looking for her friends’ names in the program. She happened to know a lot of performers in the show. I know that I’ve done the same thing, even when I don’t expect to know any of the performers.

Sometimes, when we are given a program for the theater or ballet, we are given whole biographies of the performers. At other times, all that we are given is their names. The same is true in Torah. Sometimes, we read whole stories about characters. At other times, we encounter a list of names with little or no other information about them. 

In this week’s Torah reading, we encounter a little bit of both. “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…” (Exodus 1:1). For some on this list, we have little record aside from their names here. Others of the individuals on this list are known to us from the surrounding narrative. And the list concludes with perhaps the most famous of them all, Joseph, whose story we have been reading for the past three weeks.

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Despite his fame, “[a] new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). The idea that such a powerful and  famous person could be forgotten is disturb

ing. We all want our lives to be meaningful. We want to have an impact on the world around us. So the thought that the man who saved Egypt from perishing of hunger during a famine could possibly be forgotten, makes us question our own power to leave the legacies that we desire.

The famous Medieval commentator Rashi tries to reassure us that Joseph was not actually either unknown or forgotten. Rather, he reminds us, there are two ways to understand this notion of a new king. He cites a disagreement in the Talmud between the two sages Rav and Shmuel.  One said that the king really was new. The other one countered that it was simply the king’s decrees that were new. [From Sotah 11a, Exod. Rabbah 1:8].  Rashi explains, the Torah does not say: “The king of Egypt died, and a new king arose” rather it just says “a new king arose.” From this one can deduce that the old king was still alive, but his policies had changed. This change in policies made it seem as if he were acting like a new king [Rashi on Sotah 11a]. In other words, the king acted as if he did not know Joseph, when in fact he knew quite well who he was. Joseph and the legacy he left was not forgotten, but was ignored deliberately in order to further the king’s plans for the future of his kingdom.

I want to suggest a further interpretation. It was not really the king’s policies that had changed, but his perception of Joseph. After all, we learn in Ecclesiastes Rabbah that “every man has three names: one that his parents gave him, one that others call him, and one in the scroll of his creation.” There’s ample evidence in the Joseph story to suggest that the King did not know him particularly well before appointing him to his high position. So, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that some event which occurred showed Joseph to the king in a new light. Having always thought of Joseph in one way, now the king saw something different. The king saw some quality of Joseph’s that was there all along, but that had remained hidden from view up until this particular moment.

During intermission at the ballet, my daughter could not stop talking about what a wonderful job they were all doing. In particular, she noted, she was impressed with the abilities of one specific dancer. Until this moment, all she had seen of this person was a girl who goofed around during class. Now that she could see a new aspect of this dancer’s personality, my daughter could hardly believe it was the same person. In essence, she knew her by a new name.

What will you do today to reveal a new aspect of your name?