Does Your Name Describe or Prescribe Who You Are?

By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim

13th Torah Portion, 1st in Shemot

Shemot 1:1-6:1 (124 verses)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Synopsis

                The new pharaoh in Egypt makes slaves of the Hebrews and orders their male children to be drowned in the Nile. Moses’ mother places him in a basket in the Nile, where he is found by the daughter of pharaoh and raised in Pharaoh’s palace. Moses kills and Egyptian taskmaster who is abusing a Hebrew slave. Moses flees to Midian. He marries Tzipporah, daughter of Yitro a priest of Midian. They have two sons. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and commissions him to free the Israelites from Egypt. Moses and Aaron request of Pharaoh that the Israelites be able to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. Pharaoh refuses and makes life harder for the slaves.

 

Commentary

                Moses encounters God in a burning bush. God gives him the task to set the Israelites free. At first, Moses is reluctant and expresses a concern about authority and asks God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His Name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13) God answers Moses: Ehyeh asher ehyeh (“I will be who I will be”). We, the readers, are curious about this name. We have never heard it before; and yet, Moses is satisfied and heads out to complete the task ahead. While the name is mysterious, some scholars suggest this name means, “I will be what tomorrow demands of me.” So where there are those fundamentalist thinkers who want to define God by names depicted in our scripture from thousands of years ago, I believe this name suggests that God will interact with human beings in every generation. Thus God’s names and the way humans describe the divine experience has changed throughout the centuries. An example of this is to look at the kabbalistic references and names for God are much different than those of the Bible.

                We all know personally or from stories of children of famous people who have grown tired of trying to have people appreciate their skills and talents as opposed to defining them by who their parents are. Some have even changed their names to avoid the comparison and the label. Sometimes it is easier to label someone by their name rather than getting to know them as a person. Does my name, “Rabbi Louchheim” describe me? What about daddy Louchheim? Why do close friends call me “Tom?” What does that describe? So, sometimes a name can describe something about you; but God’s name here is more of a prescription rather than a description.

                A prescription (besides what you get from your doctor) is a rule or a guide. Ehyeh asher ehyeh is a name that does not describe God, rather it prescribes how God will interact with humanity in the future. Another example of a prescriptive name is the one given to me by my rabbi. My name is Tuvya (“Goodness of God”). My name reminds me how I am to behave every day. I often ask couples who bring their child for a baby naming to explain to me who they are naming their child after and why? Often the name expresses not only a desire to remember that relative but also a hope that the child will embody the attributes of that person.

 

Texts

                A good name is better than precious oil (Ecclesiastes 7:1)

                A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold (Proverbs 22:1-2)

                Rabbi Simeon says: ‘There are three crowns: Being a priest; being a king; being a scholar of the Torah; but the crown of a good name is greater than all three’ (Pirke Avot 4:17).

Read: Zelda’s poem, Every Man Has a Name (your search engine will find it).

 

Questions

 

    1. How have the names of the Divine Presence in the Torah evolved (Elohim, El, Adonai, El Shaddai)? What traits do you attribute to them?
    2. What does the name Ehyeh asher ehyeh suggest to you
    3. Does your name or title describe you (or an aspect of you) or prescribe a certain behavior from you?
    4. How does the notion of an evolving name for the Divine Presence relate to the existence of other religions or culture
    5. Has your understanding of your name evolved?