This week’s parsha is Shemot – the first chapter of the second book of the Torah that is also called Shemot or as we know it in English, Exodus. In Hebrew, the word Shem– Shemot is plural of Shem – means name. So while in English, the book is known as Exodus, which we all know, tells the story of the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt, in Hebrew, the book is known as “names.”
Which begs the question: Why? As we all know, nothing in the Torah is there by accident. There is a reason. So why is this parsha, and this book, called “names”?
The simple answer is that Shemot starts out like this: “these are the names (shemot) of the Children of Israel coming to Egypt with Jacob, each man and his household they came: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. “
So seventy people from Jacob’s family came to Egypt, 11 of the 12 sons (Joseph was already in Egypt) and their families. But interestingly, after this sentence, no other names are mentioned for quite a while.
We then find out that a new king of Egypt arose to power who did not know Joseph – we could add, he doesn’t know Joseph’s name - and this pharaoh does not have a name. This pharaoh is afraid of the Israelites because there are so many of them, and tries to control them by forcing them to perform labor, and to build cities. In spite of this, the Israelites keep increasing in number.
Still, no names.
Now we learn that this new nameless King of Egypt has developed a plan to destroy the Israelites. He orders the midwives who deliver the Israelite babies to kill the all the male babies as they are being born.
The midwives refuse to obey his orders, and they are the first people to be named in this part of the story. Their names are Shifrah and Puah. Why are these women named, when others in the story are not?
Nahum Sarna in his commentary says:“Faced with a conflict between the laws of God and those of the pharaoh, the midwives followed the dictates of conscience. Their defiance of tyranny constitutes history’s first recorded act of civil disobedience in defense of a moral imperative. ‘”
If we go a little further into the story, to the beginning of chapter two, we find more people described without their names. For example, in the second chapter of Shemot, we read this:
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a woman of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him . . . put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile…
During this point of the story, no one is named until the daughter of Pharaoh names the baby Moses. Later on, we learn these people’s names – the man, Moses father, is Amram. His mother, Yocheved. His sister, Miriam. The rabbis later named Pharaoh’s daughter Batya. But why are their names left out here?
There is a difference between telling a story with a name – Amram from the tribe of Levi married a woman named Yochevet, and they had a son – and without a name – a man from the tribe of Levi married a woman, and they had a son. Why would the Torah choose to do that at this point in the story?
Perhaps the meaning is: here is an example of a man and a woman who married, and had a son who they hid, defying Pharaoh’s edict, but there were many others. Lots of Israelites having babies, lots of little baskets set afloat on the Nile. Some of these baby boys survived, many didn’t. This story is just one of them, one who survived. Moses. And it was due to the courage of the midwives that he even existed. Without them, we would have no story. So we have to know their names.
In The Five Books of Miriam, a women’s commentary on the Torah by Ellen Frankel, Frankel points out that women were incredibly important in the early life of Moses. Due to Shifrah and Puah, the midwives, Moses life was saved in childbirth. Due to his mother, Yocheved, who nurtured her son and placed him in the basket in the Nile, hoping for the best, and due to the watchful eye of his sister Miriam, and the compassion of the Pharoah’s daughter Batya, Moses not only survived, but thrived. Five women played an enormous role in Moses’ survival. And now we know all their names.
Rabbi Laura Geller, in her interpretation of this parsha, states: “Our tradition teaches that each of us has three names: the one we are given at birth, the one we are called, and our real name. The task of each person, according to the tradition, is to discover our real name.”