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Parshat Shemos: Sometimes It's All in a Name

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Jan 8, 2010

Parshas Shemos marks the transition from the Avos and their children to Moshe Rabbenu taking center stage of the biblical drama. Given his importance, therefore, it is not surprising that the Torah highlights Moshe's development even before Hashem placed the mantle of leadership on his shoulders. With all of the lessons that can be learned from the life and career of Moshe, perhaps one of the most important lessons is one embodied by the very name Moshe.

Throughout the first part of the story the Torah goes out of its way to never mention the name of the boy who is at the center of attention. Instead we are told about the "bein," son, "ha-yeled," the boy, and "na'ar," youth. It is not until he is weaned and returned to Pharaoh's daughter that we are told, "va-tikra shmo Moshe," she called him Moshe, "va'tomer ki min ha-mayim mishisiyhu," as she explained, "because I drew him from the water." (2:10)

In other words, Bas Pharaoh gave him the name Moshe once he was already a few years old and ready to move into the Royal Palace. It is clear, therefore, that the given - Jewish - name that his family called him must have been something else. In fact, the Midrash informs us that Moshe did have a Hebrew name, perhaps as many as 10 names, such as Avigdor, Yekusial, Tuviah, and others (see Vayikra Rabbah 1:3).

While it's not surprising that the Torah uses the name Moshe during his younger years - after all he was living in Pharaoh's home - it striking, and difficult to understand, why the Ribbono Shel Olam uses this same name when calling out from the burning bush, "Va'yikra elav Elokim mi'toch ha-sneh," and God called out to him from the bush, "va'yomer Moshe, Moshe," and said, "Moshe, Moshe." (3:4)

Why would Hashem use the name given by Bas Pharaoh and not his Hebrew name? Why not call him Avigdor or Yekusiel?

Perhaps the answer can be found in an insight offered by the Seforno (2:10). The reason given for the name Moshe focuses on the active role played by others in saving him. It would have been grammatically correct, therefore, to call him Mashuy, which reflects the passive form - one who was taken out of the water. Moshe, on the other hand, is the active form which means to draw or to take out.

In light of this, the Seforno comments that his name means, "me'malet u-moshe es acherim mi'tzarah," to draw, or take out, others from distress. He continues and suggests that Pharaoh's daughter deliberately chose this name, "to indicate that he will in turn rescue others, for I saved him from the waters. Surely his deliverance was accomplished through the agency of a Higher Power in order that he might one day rescue others." In other words, the Seforno suggests that the name Moshe reflects the mission that is to become his destiny.

Perhaps this is the reason why Hashem refers to him as Moshe when speaking to him at the bush. After all, Moshe should have been a victim to the deadly decree, "im bein hu va-ha'miten oso" (1:16); he should have died in the Nile. And yet, due to amazing, "fortuitous," circumstances, he was not only saved, but raised with every advantage. And now, when God calls on him to return to Egypt and save the Jewish people, He chooses davkah the name given to him by Bas Pharaoh because, in essence, He was calling on him with the message of "min ha-mayim mishisihu:"

"Moshe, Moshe," you were saved for a reason.

"Moshe, Moshe," you survived, not be a shepherd in Midyan, but to lead your people to freedom and to Har Sinai.

Your name is Moshe, not Mashuy. You life was spared so that you could take active part in giving life to others; your were blessed and now you have a responsibility to provide that same blessing to your brothers and sisters.

This same message is powerfully delivered when one visits the Children's Memorial at Yad Vashem.

Everything about the Children's Memorial is deliberate and dramatic. Descending a ramp carved into bedrock, you enter the underground memorial buried within a hill. The octagonal room is dark except for the flame of a candle and semi-reflective panels and mirrors multiply the single candle into an infinite halo. As moving as this visual sight is, the real power of the exhibition is that the whole time you are there you can hear in the background a recording has recorded voices reading out the names of perished children - Dovid Levin, Yitzchok Meir Varshaviak, Sorah Goldstein, and so on.

When you leave the exhibit you are facing a widening view of the beautiful forested hills of Yerushalayim and you are overwhelmed by the following realization: My name wasn't on that recording. So many children were lost and yet I am alive. Had I been a child in Eastern Europe at that time, would I have shared their fate? If we think about it we appreciate at that moment, perhaps more than we ever before, just have fortunate and blessed we are.

We may not have been pulled from the Nile or saved from the crematoria, but we have all been blessed in so many other ways. And while we may not be privy to a divine revelation in a burning bush, we are confronted with the same challenge that was presented to Moshe: what do we do with our blessing?

Rather than succumbing to the natural tendency to become complacent, we must realize that what is called for is just the opposite. The berachos in our own lives should create a feeling of responsibility to build and to accomplish and not to waste the opportunity of our good fortune.


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