“Shalom Aleichem, what’s your name?”
“I don’t have a name.”
“You don’t have a name?” How can that be?”
“Someone stole it from me.”
“How does someone steal a name?”
Sadly enough, this phenomenon has occurred more than once in Jewish history. In most recent history, the Nazis, Yemach Shemam Vizichram, inscribed many Jewish concentration camp inmates with numbers, apparently in fulfillment of the verse (Tehillim 83:5) אָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַכְחִידֵם מִגּוֹי וְלֹא יִזָּכֵר שֵׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹד , they said, “Come, let us cut them off from nationhood, so Israel’s name will not be remembered any longer!” Further back in history, we find that the Egyptians also sought to eradicate the Jewish “name” from the face of the earth. Let us explore their scheme and how HaShem saved the Jews from “drowning in obscurity.”
The Parasha begins with the words (Shemos 1:1) וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, and these are the names of the Children of Israel, and the Baal HaTurim writes that the first letters of the words שמות בני ישראל הבאים spell out the word שביה, captive, which teaches us that even when the Jewish People were held in captivity, they did not change their names. Furthermore, writes the Baal HaTurim, the juxtaposition between last week’s parasha narrating Yosef’s death and the beginning of this week’s parasha teaches us that Yosef instructed his children not to change their names. Yosef declared, “although the Egyptians change my name from יוסף to צפנת פענח, do not change your names.” The Baal HaTurim is informing us that this is the prelude to the innocuous plan of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, which was a precursor to Nazi Germany. Take the names of the Jews away from them and they will lose their identity. It is almost unbelievable, but the word מצרים actually equals in gematria the word משמם, which can be translated as “from their names,” i.e. the Egyptians goal was to remove the names from the Jewish People.
It is said (Shemos 1:8) וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף, a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Yosef. When rearranging the last letters of the words חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם we have the word לשם, for the name. Thus, the mission of this new king was to eradicate the name of the Jewish People. What was the Egyptians fear of the Jewish People? The Egyptians feared that the Jews would become so numerous that the Egyptian name would be lost. For this reason, it is said (Ibid verse 11) וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה אֶת פִּתֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס, so they appointed taskmasters over it in order to afflict it with their burdens; it built storage cities for Pharaoh, Pisom and Ramses. The first letters of the words שָׂרֵי מִסִּים spell out the word שֵׁם, name. Before we continue with the allusions to eradicating the name of the Jewish People, let us understand the importance of one’s name. When one accomplishes something in life, he associates that accomplishment with his identity. A successful businessman associates his business acumen with who he is. A Torah scholar prides himself on his Torah knowledge, his diligence, and his analytical abilities. Now, can we imagine a businessman making a multi-million-dollar deal and then being told that he had no part in the deal, not in the effort and not in the net profit? This may sound ludicrous, but this is exactly what the Egyptian instituted in having the Jews work for them. The Gemara (Sota 11a) states that these storage cities were built on quicksand, so that whatever the Jews built was swallowed up by the ground. Much effort and nothing to show for it. The Nazis acted in the same manner. As one of many examples, they had the Jews work in the quarry and when the Jews succeeded in pushing rocks to the top of the mountain, the rocks were sent right back down, demonstrating to the Jews that their work was worthless.
Now let us imagine the following scenario. “Hi Reuven, how are you?” “Reuven? My name isn’t Reuven. It’s Leah.” “Say that again!” Yes, my name is Leah. I used to be Reuven, but then the Egyptians gave me woman’s work, so now I don’t feel or act like a man, but like a woman.” Preposterous, you say, but this is what the Egyptians did, as is recorded in the Gemara (Ibid 11b).
When the Egyptians saw that they still were incapable of stifling the Jewish population growth, Pharaoh instructed the midwives to kill all the Jewish male children. What were the names of these midwives, at least in Egyptian? It is said (Shemos 1:15) וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַמְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת אֲשֶׁר שֵׁם הָאַחַת שִׁפְרָה וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית פּוּעָה, the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the first was Shifrah and the name of the second was Puah. The first letters of the namesשִׁפְרָה and פּוּעָה equal in gematria the word מִצְרַיִם, as the Egyptians wanted the Jewish midwives to emulate the Egyptian atrocities and to become an accomplice to this name eradication.
So now we have a better understanding of the Medrash that states that the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of not changing their names. To change their name from Chaim to Howard, or from Avraham to Abe, may not have been considered a tragedy. However, to lose their identity would have caused all of the Jews to lose hope in their very existence. The Jews, miraculously, never cowed to the Egyptian’s diabolical scheme, and they maintained their identities throughout the long and suffering exile.
When Pharaoh questioned the midwives as to why they had defied his orders to kill all the Jewish male infants, the Torah records their response (Ibid verse 19)וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי לֹא כַנָּשִׁים הַמִּצְרִיֹּת הָעִבְרִיֹּת כִּי חָיוֹת הֵנָּה בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא אֲלֵהֶן הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וְיָלָדוּ, the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are unlike the Egyptian women, for they are experts; before the midwife comes to them , they have given birth.” Rashi, in one explanation of the word חָיוֹת, writes that the midwives informed Pharaoh that the Jewish women are likened to wild animals, who did not require midwives to give birth. Where do we find that the tribes were compared to wild animals? It is said גור אריה, זאב יטרף, בכור שורו, אילה שלוחה, and even those who were not compared to wild animals are included. What is the significance of the fact that the Jewish People are compared to wild animals? The answer is that while the human being certainly is elevated from the animal world, in some form we all have animalistic tendencies. The Nazis treated the Jews like vermin, rats, sub-human, and ultimately sought to annihilate world Jewry. When a gentile acts on his hatred of a Jew, he cannot even compare a Jew to a wild animal. The midwives, however, sought to correct Pharaoh’s perspective of the Jewish People, and thus they informed pharaoh that the Jews are at least like the wild animals, with certain characteristics that cannot be ignored. In reward for their bravery, it is said (Ibid verse 21) וַיְהִי כִּי יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם בָּתִּים, and it was because the midwives feared G-d that He made them houses. The last letters of the words וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם בָּתִּים equal in gematria the word שְׁמָם, their names. The reward for the midwives insisting on maintaining the Jews’ identity was to merit eternal identity with the Jewish leaders, Yocheved’s sons Moshe and Aharon the Kohen, and Miriam her daughter having kings descend from her.
Ironically, when Moshe confronted Dasan and Aviram for fighting with each other, the Torah records their response and Moshe’ section as follows (Ibid 2:14) וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר, he replied,” Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?” Moshe was frightened and he thought, “Indeed, the matter is known!” When rearranging the first letters of the words מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ, they spell out the wordלְשֵׁם , for name. Essentially, Dasan and Aviram posited that the Jewish People had abandoned their identity and given that fact, what harm was there in fighting with each other? Moshe was startled by this revelation and he responded with the words אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר, “Indeed, the matter is known!” The words נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר equal in gematria the word שֵׁם, as Moshe was concerned with the Jewish people losing their identity. Fortunately, the future of the Jewish People was assured as we never lost our identity, despite the desires of the wicked people to remove any vestige of humanity and identity from us.
HaShem should continue to bless the Jewish People with pride in who we are and we should continue declaring our praise to Him as His Chosen Nation, despised by the world but unwilling to lose our identity, which is our faith in HaShem and His Torah.
Have an IDENTIFYING Shabbos!