What’s in the name? The power of a moniker

There are many names that we are known by throughout our lives; however, the name that matters is the one that reflects the life that we have lived.

 The power of a name (photo credit: UNSPLASH)
The power of a name
(photo credit: UNSPLASH)

One of my father’s favorite verses in all of Tanach is a verse in Ecclesiastes: “A good name is better than precious oil.” Accordingly, I have grown up sensitive to any associations with that text and all that it implies. In that vein, I was moved to discover a beautiful midrash in Kohelet Rabbah that explicitly reflected my father’s Torah:

“It has been taught: A man is called by three names: one which his father and mother call him, a second which other people call him and a third by which one is designated in the book of the generations as the result of their conduct in life.”

In short, there are many names that we are known by throughout our lives; however, the name that matters is the one that reflects the life that we have lived. The midrash describes Moshe’s father-in-law as a man with seven names. This is largely because there are six different names which are associated with the construct phrase “in-law of Moshe” that appears in the Torah along with two references in the post biblical book of Judges.

These include Reuel, Yitro, Yeter, Hovav, Keini and Hever (the seventh name, Putiel is the father-in-law of Aharon’s son Eliezer. He has no obvious connection to Moshe but the midrashic interpreter has a reason for this reading based on a clever word play). While “in-law of Moshe” could mean a member of his wife’s extended family, the midrash chooses to incorporate all of them into one person.

In one midrashic compilation, the Mekhilta, it says all of the names have to do with Yitro’s relationship with God. In another compilation, the Tanhuma, it says they all have to do with his learning Torah. Each midrash tries to imbue Yitro with a particular character trait that is then reflected back into each of the names he was given. However, what stands out for me is the usage of each name to reflect another element of Yitro’s excellent character so that every name stands alone, but also lends depth to the composite of the man as a whole.

While the entire corpus of midrash claims Yitro for one of their own, insisting that Yitro converted, the Torah portion of Yitro introduces a man of faith who acknowledges the greatness of Moshe’s God and then departs back to his land to continue serving his people.

Yitro is described repeatedly as a priest of Midian, indicating that he is a man who believes deeply in a divine presence, although he does not join the Israelite nation. It is my opinion that the repetitive reminder that Yitro is Moshe’s father-in-law (13 times in chapter 18) underscores a deep, intimate relationship between the two, which is unlike any other personal relationship Moshe has throughout his life. 

If we go back to chapter three in Exodus, we discover Moshe is shepherding his father-in-law’s, Yitro the priest of Midian, sheep when he arrives in the desert at the mountain of God. How does he know to turn aside and hear God’s voice from within the burning bush? Who has influenced Moshe’s spiritual journey from the time he fled Egypt, opening him up to experiencing the word of God? 

I believe it highly possible that it was Yitro, who in this later story arrives at the foot of the mountain where Moshe first experienced revelation to rejoice with Moshe over God’s greatness and Moshe’s leadership under God’s command. As Leon Kass notes in his recent commentary on Exodus, Moshe builds an altar at the end of chapter 17 but we are not told that he offers anything on it. 

Almost immediately after Yitro arrives at the Israelite camp, he offers up sacrifices to God in thanksgiving in which Aaron and the elders partake. The next day he wakes up to impart great wisdom to Moshe by steering him away from a governing style involving only one man, repeatedly urging him to consult with God in order to set up a more tiered system of justice, relying on honest and God fearing men from within the nation.

YITRO, IN my reading of the Torah, is a beautiful example of someone who respects our religious calling while maintaining fidelity to his own. It is for this reason that I particularly appreciate the direction of the Mekhilta midrash, which ties all of Yitro’s names to his close relationship with God, over the Tanhuma which portrays him as a scholar of Torah, even as I prefer a reading in which Yitro does not convert. 

It seems clear to me that Yitro teaches us that one can be a Godly person, even if one is not part of the covenant of Torah and mitzvot.

This ties well with the commandments scattered throughout the Torah to protect the strangers who live among us. In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar (known as the Or Hachayim) writes that the very sanctity that Israelites feel as children of the covenant may lead them to look down on those who lack a similar lineage. Consequently, they are commanded not to feel superior to the stranger, but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt. 

This is such an incredible and insightful reading that seems particularly relevant with regard to religious intolerance that unfortunately plagues many religious communities. “Yitro” comes to remind us that someone as great as Moshe Rabbeinu can show reverence and love for a man who was a priest of Midian.

At the end of chapter 18, Moshe allows his father-in-law to depart and Yitro goes on his way to his own land, in a reverse of what occurred in the Torah portion Lech Lecha. The journey of Moshe and Yitro has come to an end and the two men go their separate ways, but the legacy of Yitro, who leaves behind a name associated with Godliness and integrity, continues to linger. 

The writer teaches contemporary halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.