Weekly Torah Commentary — Shemot January 13, 2012

This week we began the annual reading of the second book of the Torah, Shemot which in the English Bibles is entitled “Exodus”.  However, the Hebrew word “Shemot” literally means ‘names’ and it is highly significant that this is the name given to this book in its original language because the issue of ‘names’ is very important throughout this book.

On a basic level, we know that each book of the Torah is named from one of the first words in the first verse of the respective book.  Shemot begins with “And these are the names of those who went down to Egypt with Ya’acov…”

What are some of the other reasons why this book is called Shemot?

First of all, it was in Egypt that Ya’acov’s family became a nation and his personal name given to him by Hashem, Israel, became the name of the nation and remains so to this day.

Secondly, it is in this book that Hashem for the first time reveals His ineffable Name – the four letter yud-hey-vav-hey – to Israel and indeed to the gentile nations.  Up until this time He had revealed Himself to the Patriarchs and other early figures in biblical history only in part by names that referred more to some of His characteristics and His works than His very Essence.  But in Shemot He reveals His most holy Name, the Name that plumbs the depths of His very Essence, to Moshe and through him to the children of Israel.  However, as we will see later this Name is also revealed to the Pharaoh when Moshe confronts the Egyptian leader with the demand, “Let My people go…”  Pharaoh responds “Who is this G-d…”  And in the continuing saga of the various confrontations between Moshe and the Pharaoh, it becomes abundantly clear, especially through the plagues, that Pharaoh comes to a recognition that there is indeed One True G-d and that He is the G-d of the Hebrews.

Traditionally, Jewish people do not pronounce the Four Letter Name of G-d out of an awesome respect for its profound holiness since it denotes the very essence of G-d Himself.  The English translation of “I will be who I will be” falls far short of the depth conveyed in the original Hebrew letters which form this name.  (For more study on this topic, I recommend the book “The Hebrew Letters” by Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsberg)

The plagues were designed not only to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go but also to teach the children of Israel WHO their G-d was and to nurture their faith in Him.  Hashem wanted them to fully understand that their approaching deliverance was His doing and His alone — it was not to be wrought by human means.  They were to know without a doubt — and teach their children for generations to come — that they were delivered from slavery in Egypt by the very Hand of their Creator and King.

In the third chapter of Shemot, Hashem says to Moshe, “I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzhak and the G-d of Yaacov.  This is my Name forever….”  Interestingly, in the Hebrew text of this verse, the word ‘olam’ (which means forever) is written without the letter ‘vav’ which allows an alternative translation: “This is my Name to be concealed…” alluding to a profound principle which is seen in all creation.  Hashem is at the same time revealed AND concealed.  He is revealed as the Creator to those who have eyes to see the world as His handiwork, but nature also conceals Him, for we see His work but not He, Himself. 

He is revealed in the life of a godly, saintly person yet is also at the same time concealed for we see the individual who reflects His likeness but we do not see Him!

Likewise, His essential Name reveals a depth of His essence but also conceals it for who of us can truly plumb the deepest depths of what it means to be “I AM who I AM…”

We can also learn from this that our own personal names are important.  When Jewish parents name their children, it is with this understanding in mind.  What is the meaning of this name?  What does it connote about the path in life that this child is destined to take? What do I desire for this new child?

Hebrew names have very profound meanings as witnessed when Hashem changed Avram’s name to Avraham, Sarai’s name to Sarah, Ya’acov’s name to Israel.  Each change directly impacted their mission in life.

In Tune with Torah this week = taking some time to meditate on why Hashem would say “This is my name forever – the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzhak and the G-d of Ya’acov…”  What is it about that particular name of His that Hashem showed such a special affinity for it?  And furthermore, what message may He be wanting to give each of us about our own names and their connection to our personal mission in life?

Shabbat Shalom

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