Judaism Your Way


What’s in a Name? By Rabbi Caryn Aviv

Parashat Shemot
*As a note, this Torah portion has been read over the past week.

What I want to explore is the question of ‘what’s in a name?’ This past Shabbat, Jews and loved ones listened to the beginning of the book of Exodus. In Hebrew, the book is called Sh’mot – or names, and begins with a list of Jacob’s children who left the land of Canaan to live in Egypt during a famine. One of Jacob’s children remains unnamed in that list – his daughter Dinah.

Fast forward a couple hundred years, where Jacob’s descendants are now enslaved by an oppressive new Pharoah. Here we meet one of the key protagonists of the Torah – Moses, the son of an unnamed mother and father, rescued by Pharoah’s daughter, also unnamed. Moses’ name is Egyptian, meaning ‘drawn from water.’

Fast forward several more years. Moses has fled into the desert after striking and killing an Egyptian slave master. He has married a Midianite woman named Tzipporah – which means little bird, who births their son Gershom, which means ‘stranger in that place.’  Moses experiences a sacred, and transformative encounter in the desert, when a voice from inside a burning bush calls him out ‘Moses, Moses.’ The voice identifies itself as elohai avicha – the Divine of your ancestors, and names the patriarchs, but not the matriarchs, of Genesis. This voice of the Sacred poignantly describes seeing, hearing and feeling the suffering of the Israelites, and gives Moses instructions to go back to Egypt to tell Pharoah to free them.

Moses balks at the task. He says “when I go to the Israelites, and they ask me ‘what is the name’ I should tell them sent me?”

What the Voice answers to Moses is not the name “God.” It’s not Elohim, Adonai, or El Shaddai, which means “divine breasts.” The voice says Ehyeh Asher Eyheh.

This word, Ehyeh – it kind of sounds like breathing. I invite you to pause for a moment and take a deep inhale, and exhale.

The word Ehyeh – I will – comes from the Hebrew verb HOVEH, which is all about time – past, present, and future tense. Some translate this name as “I will be what I will be,” or “Is, Was, Will Be.”

Rabbi Art Green, in his book “Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology” likes the word ‘being,’ but acknowledges that this word is a noun, and the feeling underneath Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh implies a verb – something having to do with dynamism and change. He suggests another version – Being is becoming – something beyond our comprehension exists and is unfolding. “All of being is One in a single simultaneity in God, and yet God is at the same time process without end.”

So let’s return to our opening question – what’s in a name? Names identify who we are, and who we are not. They can help us feel seen and loved in the world. When we are not named, it can be a painful reminder of our invisibility or erasure. Names connect us to a wider community of ancestors from the past, and link us to others in the present moment. Names reverberate across the generations, as future descendants might one day carry on our names when we are gone.

As the Divine voice in this week’s Torah portion suggests – Being is Becoming – everything in the universe is a process unfolding, including Moses, the enslaved Israelite people, and us.

May we honor the names we have been given. And may we connect with the being, becoming, breathing that breathes life into us and all living creatures.

Shabbat Shalom.