This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
שְׁמוֹת ~ SHEMOS
“Identity; National & Religious”
Sefer Shemos is known by Chazzal as Sefer HaGeulah, the Book of Redemption, or in more common terms, the Book of Exodus. Either of these titles are certainly suitable ones for a Sefer that describes the B’nei Yisrael’s rescue from the land of their servitude and affliction and their subsequent emergence as G-d’s chosen people. But, as many point out, the Sefer’s basic title, Shemos, seems to have nothing to do with this theme. Based on the opening words of the first Sidrah of the Sefer [Shemos 1:1], “V’Eileh Shemos B’nei Yisrael…”-“And these are the names of the B’nei Yisrael…,” the Sefer is called Shemos, or “Names.” So, the oft asked question is what relevance the “names” of the B’nei Yisrael has to the larger theme of the Book of Redemption. In other words: What’s in the Names?
Perhaps the most famous answer to this question goes back to a Midrash which states that the B’nei Yisrael merited their salvation from Egypt because they maintained three aspects of their “Jewish” identities (really Hebrew/Israelite identities, to be more precise); (1) their names, (2) their garb, and (3) their language [Vayikra Rabbah 32:5]. Indeed, a “name” is not merely something we call ourselves, but rather, it exactly as we’ve expressed it, a part of one’s identity. Thus, each of these concepts—name, clothing, and speech—make up what we would refer to as the Shemos B’nei Yisrael, the spiritual essence or identity of Israel.
So, based on this Midrash, it sounds like because we refrained from assimilating with the Egyptian culture and maintained our Hebrew/Israelite identity, we merited the Exodus.
So, there are two problems with this overall conclusion: The first issue is that if one looks at the Torah’s narrative and Pharaoh’s speech leading up to the Egyptian subjugation of the Israelites, it seems that if anything, it was the opposite, that the apparent differentiation between the B’nei Yisrael and the surrounding Egyptians was not their ticket to redemption, but it was the whole reason why they were enslaved and oppressed in the first place. In the beginning of Shemos, Pharaoh notices the increasing numbers of the people which he dubs “Am Yisrael” (the nation of Israel). Then, he develops this seemingly irrationally concern that the B’nei Yisrael will one day rebel against him so he issues these xenophobic decrees against them in which he imposes taxes upon them, obligates them to build storehouses, and eventually subjects them to backbreaking labor and even infanticide [1:9-16]. Now, it might still be that ultimately, the fact that we were “Am Yisrael” was the reason why G-d saw us “fitting” to be saved, but is it not also the reason why were enslaved? We might also argue that, logically speaking, had the B’nei Yisrael become so completely assimilated that they were no longer differentiable from their Egyptian neighbors, Pharaoh would not have been concerned about their growing numbers and would never have issued his decrees against the B’nei Yisrael.
The second issue concerns the actual merit of the B’nei Yisrael and the legitimacy of their fight against assimilation. Although our aforementioned Midrash suggests that the B’nei Yisrael, at least on some level, maintained their Hebrew identities, there’s another Midrash which suggests that after the death of Yosef HaTzaddik, the B’nei Yisrael grew lax in their observance of Bris Milah, covenantal circumcision, until eventually, the practice ceased entirely [Shemos Rabbah 1:8] (bear in mind though that there are such Midrashim which suggest that Bris Milah was not discontinued [Pesikta Zutrasa, Shemos 6:6 among others]; some say that the tribe of Levi didn’t cease from performing Bris Milah). Now, bear in mind, Bris Milah is not merely a sign of Israelite identity, but more than their names, garb, and language, it was a symbol of their religious observance, being one of the only commandments that were fully mandated to the young nation at that point.
Assuming that the masses of the B’nei Yisrael discontinued this crucial practice of Bris Milah, does it not sound as though, overall, the B’nei Yisrael were losing in their efforts against assimilation? Who cares about the fact that instead of calling their son “Jacob” or “Jake,” they called him “Yaakov”? Where’s his Bris Milah? Isn’t that what matters most?
Moreover, Chazzal tell us later that, in fact, most of the B’nei Yisrael actually did lose the battle against assimilation as four fifths of the B’nei Yisrael refused to join the Exodus bandwagon and therefore died during Makkas Choshech [See Rashi to 13:1 citing Mechilta].
Now, one might suggest a simple solution that indeed, some of the B’nei Yisrael did assimilate, and that those were the same ones who did not maintain their “Hebrew names,” and also died in Egypt. Those were the ones who did not merit salvation. The problem though is that even those who were ready to leave Egypt were not completely pure from Egyptian culture as the Zohar tells us that when the B’nei Yisrael reached the Yam Suf (Red Sea/Sea of Reeds), the sea initially refused to split, arguing that the B’nei Yisrael were no better than the Egyptians as both groups served idols. If the problem of assimilating into Egyptian culture was only an issue among those who were ultimately wiped out during the Plague of Darkness, then by the time the B’nei Yisrael reached the Sea, certainly, those Israelites were already dead. Clearly, it was a wider national problem affecting even those who made it out. Indeed, according to tradition, those who were fortunate enough to escape Egypt left on the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity, indicating that all of them suffered from Egyptian culture.
So, the questions are as follows: Did the B’nei Yisrael assimilate or not? Did they truly have merit or not? Could it be both?
Assuming that both of the aforementioned Midrashim are historically accurate, that the B’nei Yisrael maintained their Israelite names, clothes, and language, and that they also discontinued Bris Milah, perhaps we can suggest that in some ways, the B’nei Yisrael did hold their own against assimilating into Egyptian society, yet in some other ways, perhaps they didn’t. The two Midrashim do not have to be mutually exclusive. But, it’s still strange. What exactly is the difference between “Jewish names” and circumcisions that they kept one and not the other? Isn’t it somewhat paradoxical for a Jewish man to have a Jewish/Hebrew name without having a Bris Milah to match it?
In order to help us understand this seeming paradox, we could return to the earlier question concerning whether or not having our “Jewish names” and identities was truly a merit for us. We challenged the Midrash, arguing that if not for the obvious Hebrew identity of the B’nei Yisrael, Pharaoh would likely have never even decreed evil against us to begin with.
So, there are two ways one might choose to respond to this issue. Firstly, perhaps, yes, maybe it’s true that there would have been no evil decrees from Pharaoh against our people if we had completely assimilated. Instead, what would have happed is that we would have remained comfortable as an assimilated people who would never fulfill its destiny of becoming Hashem’s chosen nation. Granted, we would never have been enslaved, but we still would have been a spiritually exiled people who never would have truly realized its potential. And guess what? G-d most probably would still have found other ways to allow evil to befall us, even if not through Pharaoh’s decrees. In the end, it would become just as much a losing situation. So even though having a “Hebrew name” was a target on our backs, at least we got our salvation out of it.
However, to take matters a step deeper, it could be that although we had our “Jewish identities” as a merit on the scale, maybe it was not entirely sufficient for us to be redeemed from Egypt.
We were wondering what exactly the difference between “Jewish names” and Bris Milah is when it comes to “Jewish identity.” Aren’t they both fundamental components to our Jewish essence? So, it could be that they are really two sides of the same coin. The “Jewish names” represent our nationalistic identity, and Bris Milah represents our religious identity. Perhaps, both of these were required for the full redemption. So, while yes, we had the Jewish name, look, and speech—all of the necessary externals—but perhaps the more integral aspects—the faith in our covenant with G-d, our circumcisions, and religious observance—we were lax in, as the other Midrash suggested. And that’s why although we had the “Jewish name” and were therefore rescued from Egypt at the end of the day, we had to go through hell and back before we could actually reach that point.
And in truth, it makes a lot of sense; if we insist on being so proud as to go by our Jewish names, wear Jewish clothes, and speak according to the Jewish tongue, does it not stand to reason that we should also walk the walk and act according to the Jewish way of life, observing Hashem’s commandments? Apparently, although nationalistically speaking, we were noticeably a different people than the Egyptians, when it came to our religious existence, we were no different, and in fact, we had stooped down to the Egyptian culture and mindset. As a result, we were “Jewish by name” alone, and not by practice. Accordingly, perhaps, it was when our religious observance did not line up with our “Jewish names” and nationality that G-d allowed Pharaoh to oppress us on account of our “Jewish names.” Yes, part of our salvation entailed having those “Jewish names,” but indeed, having those names was used against us when our religious identity was not on par. The ancient antisemitism was perhaps, in part, G-d’s reminder that as per our name, we are supposed to act differently and realize that we do not belong in the foreign culture. (As the well-known Jewish idiom goes, “When we don’t make the Kiddush, they [the gentiles] will make the Havdalah.”)
All of the evidence to this need for our religious identity lies in the end of our story, at the final plague of Makkas Bechoros (Smiting of the Firstborns). The Torah goes out of its way to describe the B’nei Yisrael’s preparation for this final plague emphasizing the new laws concerning the Korban Pesach, the Paschal offering [See Shemos 12-13]. There, the Torah explains that the blood of the Pesach sheep had to be smeared on the doors as a prerequisite for the B’nei Yisrael to be spared during the plague. And on the night of the plague, the B’nei Yisrael would eat the offering. But of course, an Israelite male could only take part in the eating of the Korban Pesach if he had a Bris Milah! Without the fulfillment of both Bris Milah and Korban Pesach—two crucial religious commandments—the B’nei Yisrael would not have been redeemed! In fact, when the Navi writes [Yechezkeil 16:6], “V’Omar Lach B’Domayich Chayi”-“And I will say to you, by your blood, you shall live,” Rashi explains that the Pasuk is referring specifically to the blood of Korban Pesach and Bris Milah, indicating that our observance of G-d’s Will is the reason why we would live to be redeemed.
This point is essentially our response, in the Pesach Haggadah, to the “wicked son” who asks, “Mah HaAvodah HaZos Lachem?”-“What [worth] is this service to you?” We tell him that it was specifically because of our observance of the commandments that we were redeemed!
So, where does the “Jewish name” come into play? Did it actually help us or not? The answer might be that of course it helped. It was necessary, though not entirely sufficient as we’ve seen that our future depended upon our willingness to fulfill the will of G-d, to have a religious identity. But, it could be that the first step to developing that religious identity is to have that national identity. The B’nei Yisrael had to know that they were different, thus they had different names, clothes, and language. But, once they understood that they were different, then, they could and must fulfill the necessary next step of acting differently. Thus, having their “Jewish names” was gave them the fighting chance. Yes, they merited salvation because at the end of the day, they realized that they were different. But, part of that realization is the understanding that being different is far more than having a different name, look, or sound. Those who did not take that to heart had their “Jewish name,” their purely national identity, but they lacked the religious identity. They were the ones who did not take their “Jewish identity” all the way, and ultimately out of Egypt.
In the end, the “names” of the B’nei Yisrael were an important aspect of their Exodus. But it was only the beginning of the redemption process. Yes, we have to know who we are, but then, we have to act accordingly, and as a result, just as Hashem redeemed the B’nei Yisrael from exile then, He will do so for us again.
May we all be Zocheh to maintain both our national and religious identities as the B’nei Yisrael, live up to those identities by serving and fulfilling the Will of Hashem to the best of our abilities, and Hashem should lead us to our Exodus from Exile once again with the complete Geulah in the times of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂