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Moses’ Name

Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Vayikra, 1:1: “And HaShem called Moshe…
Vayikra Rabbah, 1:3: “Moses (Moshe) had ten names… God said to Moshe, ‘by your life, from all the names that were fixed for you, I will only call you in the name that Bitya1 the daughter of Pharaoh called you, ‘and she called his name Moshe’.”

This week’s Torah portion begins with God calling Moshe. The Midrash relates that Moshe had ten names, each one indicating an aspect of his greatness or his contribution to the world: For example, one of his names was Avigdor because he was ‘avihem shel gedarim’ – the father of fences, referring to the decrees that he made. Another name was Yered because he brought down the Torah from Heaven. The Midrash concludes that God exclaimed that despite all these lofty names, God would only call Moshe by the name that Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, gave to him. She chose that name when she pulled him out of the water, because “min hamayim mishitiyu” – “I pulled him out of the water.”2

We know that the name of a person represents their essence. Based on this understanding, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz3 asks two strong questions on this Midrash: Firstly, why did God choose this name above all the other names that expressed Moshe’s greatness – in what way did the name Moshe epitomize his essence more than the other names? Secondly, all the other names directly praise Moshe himself, yet the name Moshe, seems to represent a praise of Bitya for pulling him out of the water, so it would have seemed that it has no in intrinsic connection to his essence, and there is even less reason to use this name.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz explains with an important principle – when a certain trait is exercised on a person, that very trait is absorbed into the essence of the person. Bitya applied the trait of self-sacrifice to an extreme degree when she drew Moshe from the water. Her father was the all-powerful ruler of much of the known world, and he had issued a strict decree to kill every Jewish boy, and here she was flagrantly breaking this law and saving a Jewish boy. This great self-sacrifice was absorbed into Moshe. This answers the second question – the name Moshe does indeed praise Bitya, but it also reflects on Moshe’s greatness because it shows that he excelled in the area of self-sacrifice because he was a recipient of this trait in abundance. With regard to the first question of why this name outweighs all the others, Rav Shmuelevitz explains that it was the trait of self-sacrifice above all others that is needed by a leader, and so was considered more valuable than all of Moshe’s other wonderful traits and accomplishments.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz continues by bringing a proof of the principle that when one applies a certain trait on someone else, that trait becomes absorbed into the recipient. The Yerushalmi4 states that Jews are adorned with three particular traits: they are merciful, are shameful and perform kindness. It then gives a source for how we know that Jews perform kindness, because the verse states, “And God your God will guard for you the covenant and the kindness.”5 The simple understanding of this verse is that God will keep his promise to do act with kindness towards the Jewish people, but not that the Jewish people themselves do kindness. Accordingly, the question begs itself - while it shows that the Jewish people are recipients of kindness, how is it a source that the Jewish people are doers of kindness themselves? Rabbi Shmuelevitz explains that it is because of this principle – when somebody treats someone else with a certain trait, then that trait becomes internalized by the recipient. Therefore, the fact that God performs kindness with the Jewish people means that they will be kind themselves.

Rabbi Shmuelevtiz takes this idea even further and posits that even an inanimate object can imbibe a character trait that is applied to it.6 He notes that Noach had to exert incredible effort over a very long period of time to build the Ark in order to save the world from total destruction. Accordingly, the wood of the Ark absorbed into it the ‘ko’ach hatsala’ – ‘power of salvation’ – to an extreme degree. When did this power come to fruition? A remarkable Yalkut Shimoni7 relates that when Haman wanted to hang Mordechai, he took a beam from the Ark to use to hang him. However, this beam was completely saturated with the power of salvation’ that Noach had put into it thousands of years earlier. That power of salvation’ meant that the beam transformed from an instrument of the Jews’ destruction to a vehicle of their salvation!

This principle has a number of applications in our lives. One of the most self-evident is in the realm of education. It is well-known that a child follows the example of a parent, but Rabbi Shmuelevitz’ explanation takes this idea a step further. When a parent acts towards a child with a certain trait, it is not just that the child learns from the example, but he actually absorbs the trait that is being exercised on him. Accordingly, a person whose parents gave them a great deal of love and affection is far more likely to be a loving and affectionate person and parent than someone whose parents did not treat him that way. In reverse, it is also not uncommon that a child who is mistreated by his parents is far more prone to mistreat others. In our general interactions with people, we learn from Rabbi Shmuelevitz that a prime way to influence people’s character is to act towards them with the trait that they need to improve. For example, acting with kindness towards a selfish person can have an effect of causing him to become more kind.8

Moshe was treated with self-sacrifice, and in turn he became the epitome of self-sacrifice himself. May we merit to absorb the positive traits that are done towards us and do the same towards others.

  1. She is normally called Batya, but in the Bible, she is only called by the name, Bitya, so that is the name used here.
  2. Shemot, 2;10.
  3. Sichot Mussar, Maamer
  4. Yerushlami, Kiddushin, 4:1.
  5. Devarim, 7:12.
  6. See Sichot Mussar, Maamer 3, pp.9-12 where he brings a number of proofs of this idea.
  7. Yalkut Shimoni, Beshalach, Remez 256.
  8. Of course, there are a number of other factors that play a role in determining traits, but the idea discussed above is certainly one important factor.


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