Exodus. A word that sends a shiver of excitement down even the oldest spine. Miracles. Matzah. Charoset. Surgically clean kitchen. Cereal that costs £6 a box and tastes of sawdust. There is a certain magic in the air around Pesach time. And yet, the actual name of the book ‘Exodus’ in antiquity is Shemot, meaning simply ‘Names’. If the miracles, political upheaval and the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh are the fireworks illuminating the Seder night sky, names and identities are the stars twinkling in the backdrop.
“These are the names of the Children of Israel who went down to Egypt…” (Exodus 1:1).
With this introduction, we are launched into the timeless mayhem of slavery, blood, boils, frogs and intransigent tyrant-kings. Time and again, the Torah draws our attention to the names of the characters it wants us to meet.
In an infamously cruel twist, Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite boys are to be killed at birth. The midwives responsible for this abhorrent task are ‘Shifra’ and ‘Puah’. But those aren’t really their names at all, are they? Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) comments:
“The midwives were actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister. Yocheved was named ‘Shifra’ because she would clean and massage the new-born at birth, whilst Miriam was called ‘Puah’ because she would whisper and sing to the child to calm them.”
Pharaoh’s paranoia spirals uncontrollably to the point where he orders all new-born males to be cast into the Nile. Yocheved hides Moses in a reed basket amongst the bulrushes and sends Miriam to watch over him. Irony, it would seem, is a dish best served kosher-for-Passover as Pharaoh’s own daughter rescues Moses from the river and smuggles him back to the palace to raise him in the seat of Egyptian power. But ‘Moses’ wasn’t his real name either, was it?
After Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses, he is returned to his biological mother who will serve as his wet nurse until he is weaned. The narrative resumes: “The boy grew up and she [Yocheved] brought him to her and he was a son to the daughter of Pharaoh. And she [the princess] called him ‘Moses’, saying ‘For I drew him from the water’”. (Exodus 2:10). His name is given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter! And what was Moses – probably the most famous and certainly the most important Jew who ever lived – called before he ‘grew up’, the name given at birth by his parents?
We have no idea. It isn’t, implores the Torah, a concern we should be worrying about.
Fast forward close to eight decades; Moses kneels, frozen in awe at the sight of a burning bush. Undoubtedly, the man soon to be appointed saviour of Israel and nemesis of the mightiest empire in the ancient world has innumerable questions about the nature of this task. And yet, the most pressing of all is apparently:
“When I come to the Children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your forefathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me ‘What is His name?’ – what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13).
Time and again, the Exodus narrative delivers a fascinating subplot all pointing in one, singular direction:
The foundation of true freedom is identity of self.
How we define ourselves, the name we are known as by those we encounter, builds the arena within which freedom can flourish. The more lacking that arena is, the more suffocated the freedom.
Exodus tells the story of enslaved masses breaking their shackles and leaving entrenched suffering behind. Shemot tells them where they are going. The paradigm shift woven throughout is so subtle it’s easy to overlook:
Freedom doesn’t give identity. Identity gives freedom.
Without question the single most bizarre omission in the entire story is Pharaoh’s name. The architect and mastermind of the first ‘Final Solution’, rendered nameless by a scripture that simply refers to him by his title. Akhenatem? Ramses II? Thutmose II? Remarkably, the Torah doesn’t care. Because the real value of an identity in the ‘Book of Names’ rises and falls by the blade of what you do and what you stand for, not who you happen to be.
Pharaoh, the freest and most powerful individual in the entire narrative is damningly reduced to complete anonymity. And yet, the humble midwives, indentured servants compelled to a life of torment by their nameless tormentor, are given names that tell of their care and sensitivity towards the children they risked their own lives to save. Beyond this, the most important Jew who ever lived is known in perpetuity by a name that didn’t appear on his papyrus birth certificate. Indeed, it isn’t even a Hebrew word. It is Egyptian. Given in a moment of pure selfless love by a royal heroine who had everything to lose and nothing to gain in sheltering and raising a Jewish child as her own.
Identity gives freedom. Without it, we are lost, trapped in a prison of our own shortcomings, slaves to a culture of likes, shares and subscriptions.
The Kabbalists quote a profoundly humbling thought:
“After a person is buried, the Angel of Death sits on their coffin and knocks on the lid. He asks ‘What is your name?’ And the deceased replies, ‘The Almighty is well aware that I don’t know!’.”
To live a lifetime free in name but not deed is tragic. To die having fled from fashion to trend to craze and back, existing to be defined by salary, car and job title is heart-breaking. The notion that a person can live with themselves and yet never know themselves is petrifying. To this end, Rabbi Shimon teaches in Ethics of the Fathers:
“There are three crowns: the crown of Kingship, the crown of Priesthood and the crown of Torah. But the crown of a good name surpasses them all.”
This year, our Pesach experience will be incomparable to any in living memory. It is so, so easy to feel like we are drowning, completely overwhelmed by the constant updates bringing saddening news from throughout the community and across the globe. Images and clips of people fighting over shopping, purposefully licking trains and acting in a reprehensibly selfish manner are enough to combine two of the plagues and make the blood boil. But that is only one side of the tale. It is the story of the Exodus – from outdoors to lockdown. Meanwhile in the background, humbly and unassumingly, the story of Shemot is playing in full Technicolor brilliance. It is the story of so many brave, selfless individuals both on the frontlines and beyond, doing everything they possibly can to ease the pain and suffering of the vulnerable members of our society. This Pesach, I will think of them when I raise each of the four cups. To those who truly value the crown of a good name. Thank you.
- April 1st 2020