> Weekly Torah Portion > Shabbat Shalom > Shabbat Shalom Weekly

Yitro 5781: What's in a Name?

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! What’s in a name? Actually, quite a bit.

The vast and from a philosophical perspective, I feel it is a terrible way of looking at the world. Perhaps even more importantly, I believe it is factually incorrect.

Judaism has a very strong tradition of placing great importance on a person’s name. There are several reasons for this. According to the sages, one of the main reasons that the Jewish people merited redemption from slavery in Egypt was their refusal to change their names to adapt to the local culture. Interestingly enough, the Hebrew name of the book of Exodus is actually Shemot, which means “names.”

We find many instances in Jewish tradition and literature where names are an integral element of who a person becomes. This is one of the reasons for naming a child after a particularly righteous person or after a beloved deceased relative (in the Sephardic tradition it is common to name a child after relatives who are still living).

Perhaps the earliest source of ascribing importance to a name is found in the Torah itself; Adam is named for the “adama – earth” from which he comes, and then the Almighty brings the living creatures to Adam to name (Genesis 2:19). In fact, the Torah seems to imply that God brought them to Adam to gauge his insight into the different essences of each creature; “He brought them to Adam to see what he would name each one.” We find many other similar biblical instances of a name defining the essence of a person (see first book of Samuel 25:25 as another example).

Obviously, this tradition is based on the Hebrew name given. The Hebrew language is a holy one and is the building block of creation (the world was created through ten “utterings” of the Almighty and these were in “Loshon Hakodesh – the holy tongue” (i.e. Hebrew). This is one of the reasons why it is crucial for a Jew to have a Hebrew name.

Our beloved teacher and mentor Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory, used to lament that in modern American society a person’s Hebrew name is only employed four times his or her life: 1) birth 2) bar/bat mitzvah 3) wedding day 4) funeral. I am sorry to say that I have met many Jews who, upon asking them for their Hebrew name, I would receive the following response, “I’m not sure. I have to ask my mother/father.”

According to a 2006 study from the Institute for the Study of Child Development, using or hearing your own name is considered a self-representational behavior. Other self-representational behaviors include recognizing your own image in a mirror, using adjectives to describe yourself, or describing your own mental state. A person’s name speaks to the very essence of their self-identity.

This is why every social skill book emphasizes using a person’s name when talking to them. Even when sending someone an email or text, you should begin with their name as it draws them in and they become more engaged. (This was another area in which Rabbi Packouz excelled, he always made it a priority and focus to learn a person’s name and used it repeatedly when communicating with them.)

Like Rabbi Packouz, I find the lack of self-identification through one’s Hebrew name to be of significant concern. How a person self-identifies is intimately connected to their name. This is why it was an important “marker” that the Jewish people had not totally assimilated culturally into Egyptian society, and thus were candidates for redemption.

Because names are of such importance to both defining a person’s essence and to how a person self-identifies, great care and thought should be given when selecting a name. I am often baffled by parents whose main reason for selecting a name was “because we liked how it sounded.” Even more unfortunate are those children named after their parents’ obsessions; in the past few years a few hundred kids have been named Tesla – no, not after the inventor but after the car brand. How about the name ESPN? Yep, there are quite a few boys out there with that name. Other head scratchers include; Pharaoh, Riot, Arson, Stalin, and my personal favorite – “KingMessiah.”

The Torah is replete with passages that provide explanations for a name given. In this week’s Torah reading we find the names of Moses’ two sons and why he chose the names he gave them.

“…the name of one was Gershom, for he had said, ‘I was a stranger in a strange land’; and the name of the other was Eliezer, for ‘the God of my father came to my aid and he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh’” (Exodus 18:4-5).

Moses named his two sons after important experiences in his life. Presumably, his son Gershom was named for the events of his life in his adopted country, Midian, having arrived as an Egyptian immigrant and settling there to marry Tziporah the daughter of Jethro, one of the chieftains of Midian. His second son, Eliezer, was named after the miraculous event sparing him from Pharaoh’s death sentence and the resulting executioner’s sword (see Rashi ad loc. for the details of that incident).

Many of the commentators are bothered by the fact that, according to the chronological order of events in Moses’ life, he should have named his first child Eliezer because being saved from Pharaoh’s sword came many years prior to his arrival as an immigrant to Midian. So why did he choose to name his first son after events that took place later in his life?

In addition, the name Gershom (“a stranger in a strange land”) itself is rather perplexing; it definitely seems to slant toward the negative. Why should he express that he felt as a stranger in a strange land after being so warmly welcomed (albeit years later) by Jethro and his family? They took him in even though they knew that he was a wanted convict and someone who had escaped from Egypt. What kind of appreciation is this to his wife, father-in-law, and extended family who gave him a home and family in Midian?

One of the ancient Aramaic translations of the Bible – known as Targum Yonasan ben Uziel – translates the verse similarly, but with a subtle addition; “I was a stranger in a strange land, a land that was not mine.” Why does the translator add those words to the end of this verse?

Remarkably, with those few words we can see that the Targum Yonasan ben Uziel was bothered by the same question and refocuses our attention to teach us what Moses is really saying.

In the original covenant that the Almighty made with our forefather Abraham, God is dismayed that Abraham asked for proof that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel. God perceives this to be a lack of faith and decrees that Bnei Yisroel will have to go into exile and be “strangers in a land that is not theirs” (Genesis 15:13). Of course, we later learn that this land is Egypt.

There is a remarkable lesson to be learned here and one that we come to understand as a driving force and motivation in Moses’ life. According to the Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel, Moses, in naming his first Gershom, is not referring to Midian but rather to how he felt growing up in Egypt!

This is VERY significant. Even though Moses grew up as a prince in Pharaoh’s house (he had been “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought to the royal palace to raise him as her own child), Moses knew that he was a Jew (he had spent the first few years of his life with his mother who had been hired as a nursemaid for him).

Moses was a true prince of Egypt, but knowing who he really was caused him to feel like an undocumented Mexican living next door to the Trumps. He felt that he didn’t belong, he felt out of place and unwanted – “like a stranger in a strange land.” Even though he had every privilege and a royal status he still perceived Egypt as a foreign country.

Now we understand that in fact Moses named his children specifically in chronological order: his first child describes his life growing up in Egypt, and his second child describes his exit from Egypt. Moreover, he was letting his new adopted family know that he didn’t pine for the land or home in which he grew up.

Perhaps most significantly, we learn from Moses that growing up in a place with many privileges and comforts shouldn't obscure the vision of living in our own land and on our own terms. We may be comfortable and accepted in the United States, but we should take it all with a grain of salt. If history has taught us anything, it has taught us this: We can never confuse being comfortable in a country with actually being in our own country.

We, as a people, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for all that we have gained from the countries in history that took us in and allowed us to prosper (even as they prospered from us being there), but we should never lose sight of our ultimate goal; living in the Holy Land as a united nation with the overt presence of the Almighty in the Third Temple, may it come speedily in our days.

Torah Portion of the Week

Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

This is the Torah portion containing the giving of the Ten Commandments. Did you know that there are differences in the Ten Commandments as stated here (Exodus 20:1-14) and restated later in Deuteronomy 5:6-18? (Suggestion: have your children find the differences as a game at the Shabbat table during dinner).

Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro or Yisro in the Hebrew), joins the Jewish people in the desert, advises Moses on the best way to serve and judge the people -- by appointing a hierarchy of intermediaries -- and then returns home to Midian. The Ten Commandments are given, the first two were heard directly from God by every Jew and then the people begged Moses to be their intermediary for the remaining eight because the experience was too intense.

The portion concludes with the Almighty telling Moses to instruct the Jewish people not to make any images of God. They were then commanded to make an earthen altar; and eventually to make a stone altar, but without the use of a sword or metal tool.

Candle Lighting Times

There is a name for someone who is always wrong: Husband!
— Bill Maher

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Steve Saiontz


1 2 3 2,897

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram