What’s in a name?

Parshat Shemot, literally “names,” contains a contrast between characters who are referred to by name alongside others who are unnamed. The parsha opens by listing the names of Yacov’s sons who went down to Egypt. Yet, the Torah then avoids using names when it refers to “a new king,” “a man from the house of Levi,” “daughter of Levi,” “daughter of Pharaoh,” and others. The midwives are referred to both by name (Shifra and Puah) and as “the midwives,” and Bat Pharaoh names the baby, Moshe. With this mixture of naming and anonymity, what can be learned about the value of using names in parshat Shemot?

Here are three approaches. Sforno teaches that the children of Yacov are named because they lived up to their “names” or good character and family values. However, the generation enslaved in Egypt were not worthy of mentioning by name, hence the anonymity. The midrash, in contrast, extracts the opposite message from the beginning of Shemot: one of the main reasons Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt was that they kept their Hebrew names in exile. The midrash assumes the next generation carried on at least some of the values of Yacov. Lastly, Rashi teaches that naming is an act of love: by listing the names of b’nei Yacov in Shemot, God conveys love for Israel and reassurance of redemption in the face of hardship.

Today, psychologists have shown that using names can be an effective tool for managing emotions. Dr. Daniel Siegel uses the phrase “name it to tame it” — by referring to emotions by name, one can better navigate stressful situations and create closer relationships. How appropriate that parshat Shemot emphasizes the power of naming in the midst of difficult times, as a reminder that referring to others or emotions by name can bring about redemption. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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