What’s in a Name

The second book of the Chumash is called Shmos, “names.” It is given this title because the first verse begins:1 VeAleh shmos bnei Yisrael, “These are the names of the children of Israel….” But since the entire book is called Shmos, we are forced to conclude that, aside from echoing its first verse, the name communicates the general theme of the book.2

In the first passage of Shmos, the names of those who descended to Egypt are listed. This raises an obvious question: These names had already been mentioned in Parshas Vayigash3 in greater detail in the description of the descent of the Jewish people to the land of Egypt. Why then are they mentioned a second time in Parshas Shmos? Moreover, even the mention of the names of Yaakov’s sons in Parshas Vayigash appears redundant. Their names had already been listed several times. If the Torah had merely said, “Yaakov and his sons descended to Egypt,” we would have known their names.

The Midrash states4 that the Torah mentions the names of the Jewish people to allude to the fact that throughout the 210 years they lived in Egypt, they did not change their names. Just as they entered Egypt bearing Jewish names, they left bearing Jewish names; they did not change their names to fit the Egyptian culture. To emphasize this point, the Torah lists their names when they enter exile, and repeats them at the beginning of the book which describes their exodus.

This, however, does not explain why all the names of the tribes are mentioned. According to the Midrash, all that would have been necessary was to say that they did not change their names. Beginning the book with the verse: “These are the names of the children of Israel…,” and then listing the names of the individual tribes points to a deeper intention, for every word in the Torah is carefully chosen.

The Strength to Persevere

On the verse:5 “These are the names of the children of Israel…,” the Midrash comments:6

The Jewish people are comparable to the hosts of the heavens. Here, [with regard to the Jewish people,] the word “names” is used, and with regard to the stars, the word “names” is used, as it is written:7 He counts the number of the stars; “He gives names to them all.”

And so, when the Jews descended to Egypt, the Holy One, blessed be He, counted them, and since they are compared to stars, He called them all by name, as it is written: “These are the names of the children of Israel….”

The Midrash thus emphasizes that G‑d called the Jews by name to underscore their importance. For whenever Jews enter exile, there is a possibility that they will be nullified, absorbed into the host culture. By counting them and calling them by name, G‑d insures that this will not take place.

To explain this in halachic terms: When a forbidden entity is mixed with more than 60 times its quantity of kosher food, the forbidden entity is considered batul, insignificant. There is, however, a halachic principle that a davar shebiminyan, an entity which is counted, will never become batul. The very act of counting it endows it with importance. Thus no matter what its ratio with regard to kosher food, its presence is never nullified.8

A similar concept applies with regard to any object with a name. One of the mitzvos of the Torah is shichachah, to abandon produce which one forgot to reap so that the poor may harvest it.9 If, however, one forgets to reap the produce of a tree with a specific name, one need not leave the produce for the poor. Since the tree has a name, it is never truly forgotten. For example, the Mishnah states10 that whenever an olive tree has a specific name, the laws of shichachah do not apply. Although it may appear that the owner of the tree has forgotten it, it has a name, and so has a permanent place in his thoughts. This represents an even greater degree of importance than a davar shebiminyan.11

Thus, before the Jews went into exile, G‑d counted them and called them by name. Although the Jews appear to have been forgotten in exile, as it is written:12 “And Zion lamented, ‘G‑d has forsaken me, and the L-rd has forgotten me,’ ” since the Jews are an important entity, as reflected by the fact that G‑d counts them and calls them by name, they will never become nullified or abandoned. For G‑d will never forget them.

For this reason, although at the outset, the Midrash compares the Jews to the hosts of heaven as a whole, the prooftext mentions the stars. For the stars possess an advantage over the sun and moon, about which it is written:13 “The moon will be humiliated and the sun ashamed.” The stars and the Jewish people for whom they serve as an analogy will shine forever.

As mentioned on several occasions,14 all the interpretations of a verse share a connection. This holds true with regard to the two views mentioned above. Calling the Jews by name made them a significant entity which can never become nullified. This in turn endowed them with the strength to persevere. They were able to endure the Egyptian exile, and emerge bearing the same names as when they descended.

In the Image of G‑d

Another concept can be derived15 from the verse: “These are the names….” The Midrash teaches:16

With regard to the wicked, it is written: “Goliyus was his name,”17 “Nevel was his name,”18 i.e., their personal names preceded the word “name.” With regard to the righteous, by contrast, it is written: “His name is Kish,”19 “His name is Saul,”20 “His name is Yishai,”21 i.e., the word “name” precedes their individual name.

The righteous resemble their Creator. For with regard to G‑d as well, it is written:22 “My Name, י-ה-ו-ה , I did not make known to them.”

A similar pattern is followed in this week’s Torah reading, which begins: “These are the names” and only afterwards states those names “Reuven, Shimon, Levi….” Here too, it is demonstrated that “the righteous resemble their Creator.”

There is also a connection to the two interpretations of the Midrash mentioned previously. The Jews are described using stars as an analogy, and did not change their names because they are a nation of righteous men23 who resemble their Creator.

Only A Glimmer

The above concepts can be clarified by understanding the inner meaning of a name. The Divine light which descends to bring the world into being can be considered as G‑d’s name. To clarify the analogy: A name is merely a glimmer of the entity which it identifies. For example, there is the saying,24 “The name of the king is called upon them,” i.e., it is only the name, and not the essence of the king, by which his country is known.

A name does not relate to a person’s essence. It merely serves as a medium through which one person can establish a relationship with another. Similarly, with regard to G‑d, His name relates to the creation a realm apart from Himself. For Himself, He has no need of a name; He is holy and separate. At this level, created beings have no commonalty with Him.

Similar concepts apply with regard to the Jewish people. Jewish souls share a bond with G‑d’s essence, for they are “an actual part of G‑d.”25 Therefore other created beings cannot fully appreciate a Jewish soul.

“The righteous resemble their Creator,” and “Your nation are all righteous.” Just as only G‑d’s name, i.e., merely a glimmer of His essence, is enclothed in the world, so too, it is only a glimmer of a Jew’s soul which is enclothed in his body.26 For the body is not able to contain the soul in its entirety.

This is also alluded to in the verse, “These are the names of the children of Israel who entered the land of Egypt.” It is only “the names” a glimmer of the Jews’ souls which experienced “Egypt,” i.e., the boundaries and limitations of this material world. The soul’s essence, by contrast, does not enter exile.

The fact that the soul itself cannot be confined empowers the glimmer which is enclothed in the body to resist being affected by the concealment and veiling of G‑dliness that characterizes exile. The soul thus remains perfect despite the fact that the body in which it is enclothed has descended into exile.

An Interactive Bond

The dynamic is two-fold. That element of the soul which remains unconfined by the body empowers the glimmer enclothed in mortal flesh. Conversely, the Divine service accomplished by the “enclothed” glimmer is able to elevate the soul’s essence.

The purpose of a soul’s descent into this material realm is the ascent which such a descent makes possible. As is well known,27 this ascent is made, not only by the glimmer enclothed in the body, but also by the essence of the soul as it exists in the spiritual realms. This essence rises to a level that it could never have attained without the Divine service of the glimmer enclothed in flesh.

The reason that the glimmer, the name, of a soul can elevate its essence is because the name invokes that essence.28 Thus when we call a person by name, he responds with his entire essence. And as is well known, when a person is unconscious, one of the ways to awaken him is to whisper his Jewish name in his ear. This will arouse the essence of his soul and draw down energy to reanimate the body.

This also reflects how “the righteous resemble their Creator.” For through the Divine service of the Jewish people in this world where only a glimmer of G‑dliness shines forth satisfaction is generated for G‑d Himself. And so our Sages speak29 of G‑d: “Pleasure is aroused before Me, that I spoke and My bidding was fulfilled.”

An Individual Journey

Our Divine service in this world is to refine our bodies, our animal souls, and the portion of the world which is granted to each of us. This implies that we need not be affected by the difficulties and concealment of G‑dliness brought about by the body and the animal soul. Instead, we most forcefully devote ourselves to matters of the soul the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvos. These are goals which all Jews share.

Moreover, every individual has a personal mission. He must refine and transform his body, his animal soul, and his portion of the world, making them a vessel for G‑dliness. Each person’s mission is unique, for everyone is entrusted with a specific type of Divine service.

To highlight the individual nature of these endeavors, the Torah mentions not only “the children of Israel,” but the particular names of Yaakov’s children. For a Jew’s name reflects the pattern through which a soul’s connection to the body is expressed. The soul itself is nameless; it is only through its connection with a body that it adopts a specific motif. Since every human body is unique, every Jewish soul adopts a unique pattern, and is thus given a name of its own. This name alludes to its particular mode of Divine service.

Through “the names of the children of Israel” outlining the Divine service required of every Jew in refining his body, animal soul, and portion of the world the purpose of the descent to Egypt is accomplished, and the soul ascends to higher peaks.

The Message in the Name Shmos

On this basis, we can understand why the entire book is referred to as Shmos , for this name expresses the theme of the entire book. The first book of the Torah, Bereishis, is referred to as “The Book of the Just,”30 because it describes the lives of the Patriarchs, who personified justice. They were on a spiritual level that precluded the possibility of exile.

Although Yaakov also descended into Egypt, he did not experience the bitter nature of the Egyptian exile. Indeed, the Midrash states31 that as long as Yosef was alive, the Jews were not oppressed by the Egyptians. The rationale for this is that the spiritual level of the Patriarchs was above exile. And since Yosef represented “the posterity of Yaakov”32 i.e., he communicated Yaakov’s spiritual influence to lower levels as long as Yosef was alive, it was impossible for the Jews to be oppressed. Only after Yosef died, in the time of “the children of Israel” (i.e. in the era when Yaakov’s influence was not felt as palpably) did the oppression begin. At that time was initiated the Divine service implied by the verse “And these are the names of the children of Israel…,” for it is these endeavors which brought about the redemption.

Accordingly, the name Shmos relates to the general theme of the book. For it alludes to the Divine service carried out by the Jewish people in exile, emphasizing that:

a) only the name, a glimmer of the soul’s essence, descends into exile. The essence of the soul remains above exile, and endows the glimmer with power to complete its task, and

b) our mission is to involve those elements related to our names, i.e., a person’s own body, his animal soul, and his portion of the world. These endeavors lead to the “exodus from Egypt,” and allow the essence of the soul to ascend. The crowning phase of this sequence is to make “a Sanctuary” of which it is said:33 “I will dwell within.” As interpreted by Chassidus,34 this means “within each and every individual.”

Appreciating the Directives for Our Own Divine Service

As with all the narratives of the Torah, the parshah of Shmos contains a lesson relevant in every generation and place. Even in the most difficult phases of exile, a Jew must realize that he need not become intimidated, and certainly he need not despair, heaven forbid. For the essence of his soul is never in exile, and nothing can conceal it. Moreover, this essence empowers a Jew as he exists in this realm not to be daunted by the exile, and to carry out his mission to refine his body, his animal soul, and his portion of the world.

This is a mission of tremendous import, enabling the essence of the soul to ascend to a higher rung, and ultimately bringing about the indwelling of G‑d’s presence on earth as will be revealed in the ultimate Redemption. May it take place in the near future.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Shmos, 5719)

The Focus of a Jew’s Life

A Jew’s true vitality is not reflected in his material life, but in his spiritual life.35 In this vein, although “[the meaning of] a verse never extends beyond its simple interpretation,”36 the words:37 “And they embittered their lives,” can also be understood to mean that the tasks which the Egyptians made the Jews perform embittered their spiritual life.

This is somewhat difficult to understand. One can readily comprehend how “harsh labor with mortar and bricks”38 can darken one’s material existence, but how can it have such an effect on one’s spiritual life? True, back-breaking labor pres ents a challenge to one’s study of the Torah and observance of mitzvos. The verse, however, does not speak of challenges, it speaks of the Jews’ lives being “embittered.” How is it possible for physical oppression to embitter spiritual life?

Defining Purpose

This question can be resolved by considering a law which applies to Jews sold into servitude. It is forbidden to make such a servant perform avodas perach, “oppressive labor.”39 The Rambam defines40 the term as “work that has no limit, and which is performed without any purpose.” In the gloss to that halachah, the Hagahos Maimoni explains that this definition is derived from the description of the avodas perach which the Jews performed in Egypt.

The concept of “work that has no limit, and which is performed without any purpose” makes it possible to understand how the Egyptians embittered the Jews’ spiritual life. When a Jew involves himself in material affairs according to the directives of the Torah, his efforts are limited and purposeful. For the Torah has instructed that Jews involve themselves in material affairs only to the extent that they create a vessel to receive G‑d’s blessings. As it is written:41 “And G‑d will bless you in all you do.” Man must “do,” but his doing merely creates a vessel; the key to success is G‑d’s blessing.

And of course, there are limits to the amount of energy one invests in earning a livelihood. This is alluded to in the Chassidic interpretation42 of the verse:43 “You shall eat the labor of your hands” that our labor should be performed by “our hands,” i.e., the external and lower facets of our personalities. Our uniquely human potential should be free for other concerns.

Moreover, one’s involvement in business should also have a time limit, so that there is enough leisure for communal prayer, fixed times for Torah study, and the like.

This will also make a person’s activity “purposeful.” For if business activity is carried out according to the Torah’s directives, it will serve as an appropriate vessel for G‑d’s blessings.

If, by contrast, a person invests his mental energies in business; i.e., he thinks deeply and seeks crafty plans and cunning devices to make a profit, his efforts will be “work that has no limit, and which is performed without any purpose.” These endeavors will not bring profit, as reflected by the verse:44 “Nor do the wise possess bread.” For a person’s livelihood is granted by G‑d; human craft and cunning will not bring anything more; on the contrary, they may cause one’s portion to be reduced.45

Nor will such efforts have a limit, for a person who relies on such devices will know no restraints. Look at him at work. The evening has come; all his workers are homeward bound. It’s time to close the shop, but he is still preoccupied, worrying about his business.

Moreover, when he finally comes home, instead of setting a fixed time for study, learning both Nigleh and Chassidus, he is still busying running around either actually running around, or mentally spinning. Even when he goes to sleep, “[his] thoughts come to [him] on [his] bed;”46 he is still planning strategy. As a result, even when he sleeps, his dreams revolve around his business.47

A similar trap lies in wait for Torah scholars. Although their energies are not concentrated on business, they may be centered on honor and reputation. If someone makes a remark about such a person which is not entirely to his liking, he becomes upset. After all, he is a Torah scholar, and must defend the honor of the Torah. And since “the righteous resemble their Creator,” he must follow G‑d’s ways. Just as G‑d rewards man “measure for measure,”48 so must he settle accounts with the one who belittled him. Moreover, since the honor of the Torah is involved, he must pay that person back with a double and perhaps even a manifold measure. This is what concerns him, and this is what he thinks about all day.

At night, when he makes a cheshbon hanefesh, thinking over his spiritual endeavors, his reputation and the affronts done to it are his focus. And needless to say, his vindictiveness affects his dreams as well.

Of course, there are material concerns which are purposeful. For example, thinking about guarding one’s physical health is a valid activity. Since “maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the paths of G‑d,”49 good health is necessary for one’s Divine service.

This is especially true when a person studies Chassidus and knows the Baal Shem Tov’s interpretation50 of the verse:51 “When you see a donkey… fallen under its load,… you shall surely help unload it.”

The Baal Shem Tov explains that donkey (חמור , in Hebrew) refers to our material concerns (חומריות) and more particularly to the body. Our approach should not be to break or ignore the body, but to lift it up. This is especially true with regard to a Jewish body, for a Jewish body is chosen by G‑d Himself, as it were.52 Since a Jew’s body is so dear, he must care for it. This concern is a material activity with a purpose.

Crafty business dealings and the pursuit of honor, by contrast, are “work that has no limit, and which is performed without any purpose.”

Above All Limits and Purpose

On this basis, we can appreciate what the Torah means when it says the Egyptians embittered our spiritual life. For the Egyptians endeavored to tap the unique spiritual potential possessed by the Jews and use it for their own purposes.

To explain: Everything which G‑d created was made with a limit, and with a specific intent. What is the only thing capable of “work that has no limit”? Our G‑dly souls, for the soul is connected with G‑d’s essence, which is truly unlimited. And because of that connection, the soul is granted unbounded powers.

Moreover, this potential also transcends any sense of purpose. For example, every Jew possess a potential for mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice that transcends the limits of reason.53 This reflects a positive version of “work without a purpose,” for such Divine service is performed without any concern for reward. Indeed, it is avodah lishmah in the fullest sense.54

It is possible, however, to employ this limitless power of the G‑dly soul for evil purposes. “They consider darkness as light, and light as darkness; they consider the bitter sweet, and the sweet bitter.”55 This leads to back-breaking work, “work that has no limit, and which is performed without any purpose.” And this embitters the spiritual life of the G‑dly soul.

In Touch With One’s Personal Mission

We can also appreciate these concepts on a higher plane, i.e., a person can use his spiritual vitality in the sphere of holiness rather than for worldly matters, but nevertheless employ it for purposes other than the Divine service destined for him. This too can hamper one’s spiritual progress.

There is a specific mission for which every soul descends to this world. When the yetzer hora wants to hinder a person’s Divine service, it won’t necessarily tell the person to ignore Divine service entirely, for there are those who will not listen to such enticement. So the yetzer hora instead encourages such people to devote themselves to a path of service which is not their own.

In general, Jews are divided into two categories:

a) Torah scholars, and in particular yeshivah students, whose fundamental thrust is the study of Torah. They must also perform deeds of kindness (in both the material and spiritual sense), thus spreading the wellsprings of Chassidus. Such kindness is intrinsically related to success in Torah study, for our Sages have taught:56 “If one says, ‘I will be devoted solely to Torah,’ he will not even possess Torah.” And thus a Torah scholar must always couple his endeavors with deeds of kindness.57 Nevertheless, his primary focus remains the study of Torah.

b) Businessmen, whose primary focus is the observance of mitzvos, and in particular, the mitzvah of tzedakah, which is the paradigm of all mitzvos that involve deed.58 In this way, he spreads the wellsprings of Yiddishkeit, Torah and Chassidus, which is a spiritual expression of tzedakah.

But when it comes to holiness, all our different attributes are interrelated, and thus businessmen must also have fixed times for the study of Torah to complement their efforts in the realm of tzedakah.59

Unfortunately, there are “souls that have lost their way”60 people who ignore the mission with which they have been charged, and instead involve themselves in matters intended for others. These could be businessmen from whom it is demanded that they give tzedakah. How do they reply? They explain that they are too busy, they must prolong their pray ers, and devote themselves to intense study. And directly afterwards, they’ve got to run to their business. And thus they have no time to give tzedakah or do a favor.

In the same vein, there are yeshivah students who so dedicate themselves to tzedakah projects that they ignore the fixed times established for the study of Torah. The confused souls put their spiritual energies into following a path of service not their own.

Although the “too busy” businessman and the “too kind” yeshivah student are each engaged in holy endeavors, their souls’ purpose is not being met; for them, involvement in these misguided activities “embitters [their] life,” for it uses the energy of their G‑dly souls for objectives outside its proper scope, and indeed such mistaken activity interferes with the accomplishment of that purpose.61 This is perhaps why such aberrant behavior lasts only a short time.

The Awareness of Freedom

To offset these forces which “embittered [the Jews’] lives,” the Jews obeyed G‑d’s command:62 “Select and take sheep… for the Pesach sacrifice.” It is this which generated the merit for the exodus. For bringing this sacrifice involved taking the false deity of the Egyptians, a sheep, and slaughtering it before the Egyptian’s eyes.

This initiative was the hallmark of a power that knows no bounds, the power of mesirus nefesh which transcends reason. Its expression involved redirecting the power of the G‑dly soul to its proper place.

And this leads to freedom. As the Tikkunei Zohar states,63 this includes “freedom from foolishness.” A person gains a genuine appreciation of what comes from the G‑dly soul, what comes from the animal soul, and what comes from even lower sources of influence.

This freeing of the powers of the G‑dly soul from exile is the spiritual counterpart of the exodus from Egypt. And this in turn is the catalyst which brings the actual redemption.

(Adapted from Sichos of the 2nd Night of Pesach, 5719, 5720)