In Australia I ran a beginners minyan. One Shabbos morning an older man came in. He wasn’t the usual type of attendee, he stood out. He was an old-timer, a European Jew
During minyan he sat motionless in the back. It was a participatory Minyan, but he didn’t seem to participate. As we finished I went to greet him and I asked him what his name was. He replied, ‘ I don’t have a name’. A shiver went up my spine. I never met anyone without a name. Who can go through life without a name? As I stood beholding an emptiness I’ve never experienced, the man pulled up his sleeve and showed me the number tattooed on his forearm. He lost his name in the Holocaust and he became a number forever.
Sefer Shemos, or the Book of Names, is a far less dramatic title than the title given by the Septuagint who called the second book of the Torah ‘Exodus’. It is called Shemos because in this Sefer names are cardinal.
The Book of Names appropriately begins, with a list of names. Chazal highlighted and explained the centrality of names during our sojourn in Egypt. They taught that we were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of our names. The Midrash, in reference to the fact that the Shevatim were all named one by one, as they were already named in Parshas Vayigash comment: ‘Yehuda went in, Yehuda went out; Reuven went in, Reuven went out…’
Yet, it seems that the most important names – go unnamed! Moshe; Amram; Yocheved, Miriam, Batya, Pharaoh are all anonymous. Even G-d was resistant to tell Moshe His name. “They will insist on knowing Your name’, said Moshe -‘What shall I tell them?’
Why do we have to wait until Parshas Pinchas for the Torah to name the cast of characters and the immediate family of Moshe?
On a personal note, my grandfather’s siblings were mostly killed in the Holocaust. As we were growing up we didn’t know their names. When it came to naming children my grandfather would suddenly give a name to be used for a newborn. ‘Call him Mechel, call her Yehudis’ he would say. He didn’t talk about where the name came from or the personality of the individual. He just gave a name. As a child I came to understand that there was a period in our history where we just didn’t have names.
People think that when we name a newborn child after someone that passed away, it acts as a sort of memorial to the person and their life. That’s not completely accurate. Giving a name to a new baby is intended to give a very real continuation of the namesake’s life and purpose. We give that person that is no longer with us a name. Lacking a name implies a lack of purpose, destiny, or a place in the world.
A name should be understood as the very core of the nature of the person. People sometimes ask me to suggest a name for a new baby. I tell them that that only the parents have the specific kind of ruach hakodesh which allows them to gave an appropriate name for their baby. What will be their purpose? What will be their destiny?
The custom in Israel is that at the conclusion of our daily prayer we recite an individualized verse from Tanach which reminds us of our names. The last thing we want to do is leave this world nameless. We must always remember our names.
Somehow, even through slavery in Egypt, we didn’t lose our names. We left in the merit of our names because we knew who we were and therefore where we were going.