Friday, January 16, 2009

Weekly E*Torah by Rabbi Avrohom Altein

It's All in the Name
This Shabbat we begin reading Exodus, the second book of the Torah. The Hebrew name of Exodus is Shemot (Names). The title "Names" is from the opening words of Exodus. It begins with the words "These were the names of the Jews that came to Egypt." The Talmudic sages point out that the Torah had already listed their names previously in Genesis, when it first described how the Jews left the Land of Israel and came to Egypt. The theme of Exodus is the redemption from Egypt, so why does the Torah repeat here the names of those that had earlier descended to Egypt?

The rabbis explain that the Torah makes a point that the Jews left Egypt with the very same type of names that they had when they had arrived in Egypt some 210 years earlier. Although Egypt was a powerful civilization with a highly developed culture, the Jews did not assimilate and lose their Jewish identity; they still referred to themselves with their Hebrew names.

What helped protect Jews from assimilating was the fact that they did not change their Hebrew names to names that would resonate better with their Egyptian neighbors. A name is a powerful statement of what a person is. When a person uses his/her Jewish name in their daily business affairs it demonstrates that the person is comfortable and proud of his or her Jewish identity.

According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish name is a channel to the soul. The parents are gifted with prophetic insight when they select a name for their child, so that the Jewish name is a perfect match for their child's soul. No one else, not even grandparents or friends, should meddle with the parent's choice of an appropriate Hebrew name for their child.

We usually select a name of either a parent or grandparent, to perpetuate their memory or the name of a righteous Jew, so that the child will be imbued with the qualities of his namesake. We are careful not to name a child after a decadent person or one who led a tragic life, because the name imparts the character of the namesake on the child.

A boy receives his Jewish name at his circumcision. A girl receives her Jewish name as soon as possible after her birth, during the reading of the Torah in synagogue on Mondays, Thursday or Shabbat.

The important lesson of Shemot is the to use our Jewish names with comfort and pride. It will keep us proud of our Jewish heritage.

Weekly Smile
Many East-European Jews shortened and modified their Jewish names when they arrived in North America. They were afraid of anti-Semitism. But it really didn't do the trick. The only name that really fits the Jew is his real Jewish name.

There is a famous story of an elderly East-European Jew named Sean Fergusson. When asked, "what kind of a Jewish name is that?" He explained the story behind the name.

When leaving the old country, people prompted him to identify himself with an English-sounding name so that he would fit into North-American life. But when he arrived at immigration and they asked him what was his name, this Yiddish-speaking Jew was unable to remember. He said "Shoyn Fargessen!" (-Already, I've forgotten! -in Yiddish). And that became his name!

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