Just recently we completed this year’s reading the Book of Genesis (Bereishis) in the synagogue. This week we opened a new book, the Book of Exodus, Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names.
Names are extremely important for Jews: When things are not going as smoothly as you would like, we have this expression - “Change your name and you will change your luck”. I think that this mindset is rooted in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) where one of the four ways to annul an evil decree is to change your name.
Not everyone is of this mind. William Shakespeare in the play “Romeo and Juliet” has Juliet saying some to the effect: What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. As it turned out, Juliet was dead wrong.
There seems to be a particular significance in knowing a person’s name. It is as if by knowing the person’s name, you know their essence. When Samson’s father, Manoach, encounters an Angel in the Book of Judges (Chapter 13), he asks the Angel for his name. The Angel refuses, saying that his name is hidden, beyond Manoach’s knowing.
There have been heavy duty name changes in the Five Bookss. Abraham, Sarah and Joshua underwent a name change. But the most far reaching transformation was that of Jacob. When the Angel that Jacob had been wrestling with changed Jacob's name from Jacob to Israel, it was not only a change in luck, but change in destiny.
Then in Chapter 2 there is a turn in events: we learn about a certain unnamed man from the tribe of Levi who marries an unnamed woman, who gives birth to an unnamed son, who while in a basket is watched over by his unnamed sister, and the unnamed son is rescued by Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter. This unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter raises the unnamed baby boy as if he is her son (2:10).
And then we get his name. She calls him Moses…why?
She called him Moses, and she said, "For I drew him from the water."
וַֽיְהִי־לָ֖הּ לְבֵ֑ן וַתִּקְרָ֤א שְׁמוֹ֙ משֶׁ֔ה וַתֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֥י מִן־הַמַּ֖יִם מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ
The root of מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ is the verb למשות, to fish out, extricate or rescue. Commentators make reference to Moses rescuing us from death and drowning in the Sea of Reeds when Pharaoh’s chariots were hell bent on destroying us.
There is another computation as to to the meaning of the name Moses. This is a simple one, and is not in Hebrew. Pharaoh’s daughter regarded Moses as like her son. Moses in Egyptian means “son”, and that is exactly what she called him. We see Moses in the name “Rameses” meaning the son of the deity Ra. Another example is “Tuthmoses” (as in King Tut), meaning son of the deity Thuth.
When you about it the man we know as Moses must have received perhaps a different name at his circumcision. Other than ben Amram (Moses’ father), I wonder what it was.
As the text continues, we meet up with the two heroic midwives sent by Pharaoh to kill Jewish boy babies. They are Shiphra and Puah. The usual commentary attempts to make them Jewish, and that they are indeed Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam, a good story, but highly unlikely.
Now years later, we come to the scene at the Burning Bush. Moses is a fugitive, having murdered an Egyptian taskmaster and then fleeing to the land of Midian. Moses is the father of two baby boys. He is married to a gentile woman, Tziporah, the daughter of Yitro, a Canaanite priest.
While tending his father in law’s sheep an Angel appears to him at the burning bush, a bush on flame, but not consumed. Then Hashem (the name) calls out to him by name (3:1-6). Hashem introduces himself to Moses, “And He said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."
Hashem instructs Moses that He will take the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and that Moses will lead them. Moses asks Hashem when “I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them? (3:13)"
“God said to Moses, I will be what I will be, and He said, ‘So shall you say to the children of Israel, I will be has sent me to you.’”
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם
It would appear that Hashem has made public His name to Moses. Bearing in mind the significance of name revelation, what do we have here; what are ramifications; what do we do with this information?
To me this is a watershed or seminal moment in Jewish knowledge regarding the ultimate being, God. We have just been told what may be the personal name of God.
Now don’t you say so what, no big deal. It is a big deal. We do not articulate the name of God when we read it in a text. Instead we say Hashem or Adonai. Many of us write the word God as G-d, leaving out the middle letter. We pronounce the individual Hebrew letters as a whole name, but say it as yud-kay-vav-kay, changing the letter hay to a kay. In short, we go out of our way not even to get close to what may or may not be God’s name. It is more than a sign of respect; it is a sign of awe.
And whether or not the name אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה should ever be uttered, I will leave that up to you. The only time that Hashem’s name was fully and correctly articulated was by the Kohen Gadol at Yom Kippur and only in the Holy of Holies. It is called the "Ineffable Name of God".
Some believe that “I will be what I will be” should be interpreted as I will be with you in good times and I will be with you in bad times. I am not sure. But what I do know is that we are not command to forget about the name אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, or to cease from contemplating its meaning. Had that been what was intended, then it would not have been written in Sefer Shemot. It is my belief that the meaning of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה should be understood, and contemplated, and discussed, and remembered now and forever.