The first Torah portion in Exodus is Shemot, Hebrew for “names.” “These are the names of the Israelites coming to Egypt…” (Exodus 1:1).
That might be where we got the name of the parsha, but that is not where the parsha takes us. Namings take place throughout Shemot. Moses gets a new name from the daughter of Pharaoh — her mistaken grammar is a mask for prophecy. In rabbinic commentary, the daughter of Pharaoh receives her name, and of course, God reveals God’s name to Moshe.
Take Pharaoh’s daughter’s naming of Moshe. You remember the story: Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, puts her baby in a little tevah, or vessel, made of papyrus. The word “tevah,” when it appears in the Bible, is usually translated as “ark” — the same word is used for Noah’s floating biosphere. (Perhaps to say: Just as Noah’s ark carried a new start for humanity, so does Moshe’s ark.)
The heretofore unnamed daughter of Pharaoh goes down to the Nile to bathe. She sees the ark stuck in the reeds (the suf) and the crying baby within. She realizes he is one of the Hebrew children, but she pities him, takes him in and finds him a wet nurse. She names him Moshe, saying: “Ki min ha’mayim m’shitihu” (because from the water I drew him out).
Pharaoh’s daughter prophetically sees the fortune of the crying infant and names what he is to do years later — draw the people of Israel through the water of the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. He is the Moshe, the One Who Draws From the Water.
According to the sages, this baby boy already had a name. In Shemot, we are told that when the boy was born, his mother looked at him and said, “Ki tov” (how goodly).
Yocheved uses the same phrase God did when He saw the days of creation — “Ki tov” (It is good). Perhaps it is used to say that the story of creation represents the birth of the world, the moral aspect of which had gone so awry, and the birth of Moses symbolizes the rebirth of the moral universe.
Based on Yocheved’s exclamation, the sages say that boy’s name was Tuvya: the goodness of God — “a sign that he was fit for prophecy.” But the sages remind us that the prophecy of Pharaoh’s daughter established the name that even God would use. Moses’ name would not be based on his capacity, Tuvya, but rather his deeds, Moshe.
We don’t know the name of Pharaoh’s daughter until the sages name her: Batyah, the daughter of God. Her compassion and devotion to Moshe made her the adopted daughter of God.
Rabbinic midrash adds a beautiful symmetry to this already mysterious irony: The daughter of Pharaoh names the greatest prophet of Israel, and the sages of Israel name the daughter of Pharaoh.
A modern midrash fills this out. Israeli poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, the first cousin of the Lubavitcher rebbe, wrote an extraordinary poem titled, “Unto Every Person There Is a Name” (“L’chol Ish Yesh Shem”), which contains the following lines:
“Unto every person there is a name
Bestowed on him by God
And given to him by his parents….”
As we meditate on this idea of names, of names given and destinies and identities established, questions arise: How is our inner identity established, that living tissue of inner essence, that mutely conscious dimension of our souls which gives continuity to our inner lives? Are we only named by the names people call us, our admirers and detractors together? Are we named by our aspirations or our failings, or by what we have learned as we step and stumble from one to another?
I believe that God has placed a secret name within each of us, and that it is our life’s purpose, at least partly, to know and speak that name with all we do. There are moments in life that define our names. The rest of our lives can be spent living up those moments or atoning for the moments when we have forgotten our inner name.
And in each of these moments of internal naming, where some aspect of our spiritual identity is engraved upon the soul, God is present.
Moshe said to God: When I tell the Israelites that the God of their ancestors has sent me, they will ask me, “What is his name?”
God says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (I shall be who I shall be).
I think of God here, in this context, as being present in our spiritual strivings. God’s inner identity, the unknowable infinite nothingness of the Divine, is not what Moshe is asking. Moshe is asking of the name of the God sending him to this work that will define his life.
God says, perhaps: Don’t ask for me a fixed identity, a name that will ease your anxiety as you go about your life’s work.
Perhaps God is saying: “Get to your work, discover your name and I will be there with you.”
Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.