Torah, Facebook and a reflection on ‘names’

Rabbi Alan M. Klein


I love Facebook-mostly because it helps me remember people’s names.  For a rabbi any aid in this area is worth its weight in gold-or pixels. We all know that knowing a name is valuable.  A vague memory of a face or a voice doesn’t even come close. With a name you can begin a mental file and learn a lot about a person and your potential relationship to him or her- even without Facebook.

Our Torah portion is called Shemot (Names). Portions and Biblical books (Shemot is both) are titled by the first distinctive word in the text. In English we usually title something to sum up the contents. Other European languages and our movie industry like clever hooks about the content. 

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Still, there are two uses of names in the portion that can teach us something.  The first is the list of the 12 tribes that went to Egypt. Several aspects of this seemingly ordinary list are striking.

First,  any liberation must begin with clarification and reiteration of names.  These don’t have to be impressive names-just normal names that one can be proud of. We recently saw the funeral of a man who styled himself “Dear Leader.” I doubt anyone was really impressed.  On the contrary,  say the initials JFK and we all take notice.  Even in normal times our pride in our names can reassure us that the tasks we take on can be accomplished.  

Second,  the original readers or hearers of Exodus must have noticed that the same tribes came out of Egypt, traveled through the wilderness, received the Torah and entered the Land of Israel.  Names mean a lot more when they are associated with memories and accomplishments.  This is why we read the Torah, study history and celebrate holidays. Names give us an address for our actions-both good and bad.  When we read names of  the departed before Kaddish, we use the name as a shorthand for all the events of a life and our reactions to those events.

Later in the portion we find the first use of God’s name. Even without Jewish customs concerning that name,  there are questions about use of God’s name. Can God’s name ever truly be ordinary, like our names are without our accomplishments?  Can we use any name to summarize the events of God’s life-all eternity? In the book the writer gives God a name based on the Hebrew verb “to be.”  The best translation in English is really not “Lord,” but “the Eternal.” In Jewish custom we refrain from even saying this name. We don’t want to call out to God like we do to our friends. We don’t write the name except in specially defined circumstances.

Names are important and we spend a lot of effort to learn them,  use them, and learn from them-in our lives, in stories and in the Torah.