Parashat Shemot: ‘Unto every person there is a name’

Rabbi Jim Bennett

By Rabbi Jim Bennett

“These are the names of the Children of Israel …” 

With these words, the book of Exodus begins. And with the recitation of the names, we encounter a new chapter in the life of our people and our history. We move beyond the family drama of the book of Genesis, replete with sibling rivalry, parental favoritism and the like, and now we see the theological adventure of a people intertwined with the Divine. And it all begins with the realization that our names matter.

It is no accident, I believe, that the book of Exodus, called Shemot in Hebrew, which means “names,” focuses on names from the very start. This is a book about relationships, between Moses and God, between Moses and Pharaoh, and ultimately between all of us as well. For the book of Exodus, starting with the simple recitation of the census of the names of the tribal leaders, moving through Moses and his quest to know God’s name, to see God, to feel the presence of God, is about our desire to matter.

What better way to let someone know that they matter than to begin with their name. We have all felt the power of someone knowing our name. It makes us feel good to know that we are known, that we are seen. Using someone’s name is a sign of respect even as it also gives us something of power over the other. And in that power exists the potential for meaningful relationship as well.

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The Hebrew poet Zelda wrote:

Unto every person there is a name

Bestowed on him by God

And given to him by his parents.

Unto every person there is a name

Accorded him by his stature and 

   type of smile

And style of dress.

Unto every person there is a name

Conferred by the mountains

And the walls which surround him.

Unto every person there is a name

Granted him by Fortune’s Wheel,

Or that which neighbors call him.

Unto every person there is a name

Assigned him by his failings

Or contributed by his yearnings.

Unto every person there is a name

Given to him by his enemies

Or by his love.

Unto every person there is a name

Derived from his celebrations

And his occupation.

Unto every person there is a name

Presented him by the seasons

And his blindness.

Unto every person there is a name

Which he receives from the sea

And is given to him by his death

The nameless people in our society are only nameless because we have chosen not to know them.  The people we pass each day without looking in their eyes, without asking their names, without caring who they are, remain nameless because we choose to have them remain thus.

Our society and our lives will be strengthened only when we begin by saying “these are the names” and caring about the other enough to know her name, to use his name. Then, we are known and we know the other, and thereby we come to know the Other as well.

We all have a name. Indeed, we have many names – the ones we are given, the ones we earn, the ones by which we are remembered. Our task, of course, is to know our own essence and to unite our name with the names of all humanity and, ultimately, with the name of the Divine.

Rabbi Jim Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St.  Louis Rabbinical Association.