Parashat Shemot: the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing it.

ottenstein cemetery

Picture of Jewish Cemetery, Ottenstein: Rothschild family cemetery


One of the signs of reaching middle age is an interest in family history, as the past begins to assume an importance it didn’t have before and we want to know more about from where we came in order to pass on a strong link to the next generations.
    The book of Exodus begins with a brief genealogy and also retells the foundational story of the family as the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob are given to us once more, along with a reminder that this one man had 70 immediate descendants – 70 being a combination of two perfect numbers (7 and 10) and so showing a completeness to his life as a patriarch.
    But as quickly as the people of Israel increased and multiplied in Egypt, tragedy struck, a new king arose who saw them not as an asset to the community but as a threat, and so organised the legalised oppression of these people. Apparently determined not to be destroyed by this subjugation the Israelites continued to have many children and the pharaoh’s response was to take his cruelty down to the newborn children, by having every male child murdered at birth.  Yet the Hebrew midwives who were instructed to do this disobeyed, and playing upon the stereotype of the Israelite women being different from local women, told Pharaoh that they could not kill the newborn boys as they were born so quickly. And so the oppression was taken from the hands of the officials and given into the hands of the people – every boy born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the river.
      As a family history it is painful reading. Even though we know the ending, (for here we are about three millennia later still thriving), to know what our early family had to endure is excruciating. I reacently read  the memoirs of another family member, Ephraim Rothschild who lived in the Hannover area and who wrote his family history over the five years from his 85th to his 90th birthday in 1898. The stories of illness and early deaths, of capriciously unjust authorities, of marriages and children and movements to different villages to escape limitations on numbers of Jews, of legal restrictions and consequent struggles to find ways of making a good living and educating one’s children – it is an insight into a world that I can only say I am grateful not to have been born into. And yet as I read about graduates of the Jacobson school being taken into his employment, and his doubt about what would become of the descendants of those who professed Reform Judaism, there is something of the same feeling as reading the beginning of Shemot – our ancestors could not know what their descendants would become, they could only do what was right and possible in their time and their context in order to create the best chances for their family/people/religion to continue. And they could tell their story, which would include naming the names, reminding their descendants of the familial link and the story that went right back to Sinai.
     Ephraim Rothschild and the family from which he came lived generally in small towns away from the hub of political activity for 230 years, the connection to the area ending only when my grandfather left Hannover (via Baden Baden) for Dachau in November 1938 and my teenage father left Hannover for England. Not quite the 430 years of sojourning in Egypt, but a substantial time nevertheless, and a time when the family story continued to be told and passed onto the next generations. The memoir makes clear that his main interest was his family and the family business, and while he had some criticisms of the Judaism of his time, both the conservative forces of reaction and the too radical (for him) forces of Reform, he took it upon himself to endow and run a synagogue. But he also took it upon himself to learn the new political and economic ideas, teaching himself the essence of democratic politics and national economy, even writing to Bismarck and then to the Kaiser with his ideas and recommendations.  While never taking on the authorities too far, or taking a path of outright disobedience, he chose to play as full a part as he could in improving the lot of his fellow Jews and his fellow Germans.  Living in a relative backwater was no hindrance to his taking part in life. As in the opening of of the book of Shemot, Ephraim’s memoir tells the stories and names the names, and he seems content to do his best within the context and place he found himself, keeping family and religion going to the next generations. And with the stories we find out about some of the women of the family, and how hard they worked to keep everything going.

The title of the book of Shemot (names) is usually understood to refer to the names of the sons of Jacob who came down to Egypt with him, but there are other names to be found in this sidra and there are areas where the naming of names seem to be deliberately avoided. In particular within the story leading to the birth and naming of Moses which is found in this sidra only three names are made clear – the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah are named and described twice as women who “revered God”, and their civil disobedience in aiding the labouring Hebrew women is recorded in bible, as well as their divine reward which is understood by Rashi to be that they became the founders of great dynasties themselves. Yet the father of Moses and the mother of Moses are described only as coming from the tribe of Levi, the Egyptian woman who rescued him is only described as ‘bat Paro’ – a daughter or female relative of Pharaoh, and the sister who oversees the rescue as ‘his sister’. Moses himself is finally named by the daughter of Pharaoh only ten verses later when he has been weaned by his mother and returned to her in the royal household.

This naming of the God-fearing midwives, yet the deliberate non-naming – almost to the point of clumsiness in the text – of all the others around Moses’ birth and rescue reads curiously in a sidra called “Names”. Is it trying to tell us that sometimes we must stand up and put our names to our acts of justice while at other times it is better to do so in anonymity?  Certainly that thought has resonances today in a world anonymity on the net.

      Or is it trying to say that sometimes it is the story that is important and the players are merely functionaries whose naming might distract us? Or maybe that it is our relationships with each other that truly matter and not just ourselves? Or that who we really are – the essence that is caught up in our name – can only be understood in the context of who we are connected to and what we do in our lives.

     The study of one’s family history can be fun and also it can be painful as the many stories of persecution and deprivation echo down the centuries along with the names, often the same names used repeatedly so that one can no longer tell who is being remembered in the naming.  But just to get caught up in who was who is not to in any way know about them. For that one needs the stories, the way the relationships developed, the sense of what they did and the context for why they did it. And we need also to recognise the difference between knowing the name of something, and knowing something. As Richard Feynman wrote “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

The naming of Jacob and a midrash on Israel – Parashat Vayishlach

Twice in this sidra we are told about the name given to Jacob. The first time happens at the Ford of Yabok after he has wrestled all night before meeting his brother Esau again. At his demand as the dawn rises he requests a blessing and his name Jacob is changed to Israel, (Vayomer: lo Ya’akov yei’ameir od shimcha, ki im Yisrael, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with people, and have prevailed.’  (Genesis 32:28-29)

The second time is a few chapters later, when having met Esau he has reached Beit El, the place we are told was the scene of his original meeting with God when, having fled his family after cheating Esau of the birthright blessing he dreamed of a ladder from heaven to earth and made his deal with God should he come back safely to his own land. This time we are clear about who is doing the naming, but with less clarity about what the new name is supposed to mean:  “Vayomer Elohim lo, shimcha Ya’akov. Lo yikarei  shimcha od Ya’akov ki im Yisrael yihyeh sh’mecha, Vayikra et sh’mo Yisrael” And God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name. And God called his name Israel”

So the first time we have a reason for the name given to Jacob – albeit one that is a bit of a stretch for our imaginations – by a shadowy figure who may or may not really be there; And a few chapters later we have certainty that his name is given to him by God but no reason given for the name.

The names Jacob and Israel have been the focus of much discussion and debate over the generations – after all we call ourselves B’nei Ya’akov – the children not of Abraham or Isaac, but of Jacob; our pleople and land are named Israel and any other name would seem unthinkable.  We descend in a very intimate way from this naming; we take the identities as our own, we describe ourselves as a people who struggle with God and who survive.

Much of the debate centres around the interchangeability or not of the two names and what they indicate in each context. Everywhere else in bible when your name is changed it is changed forever and there is no going back to the old one. Your name signifies a central essence, it is you and you are it, be it description, aspiration or significant memory, names in bible describe what that person most essentially and existentially is. Yet here we have a patriarch whose name is changed by God in dramatic circumstances with the words “your name shall no longer be Jacob”, who continues to be called by his original name as well as the new name throughout the text until his death.

Let us look a little closer at the names. Ya’akov/Jacob means to be curved, like a heel (and the pun works in English as well as in Hebrew).  In truth, Jacob is a bit of a heel, someone perfectly able to treat his twin brother without real respect, pulling him back in order to gain advantage. Israel means – well what does it mean? Bible tells us it means one who has struggled with God, though etymologically it would make more sense to be from Yashar El – the one whom God straightens out.

Bible though has a different interest to that of etymologists and does not need to follow the rules of grammar in the way that we might expect it to. It wants to tell us something important. Jacob has struggled with God and with Humankind and has “tuchal” – variously understood as “prevailed”, “been able, continued. So the name is given – Yod, S/hin, Reish, Alef, Lamed.

Taking this word apart, in the full knowledge that Jacob has not only wrestled with God (Elohim) but also with Humankind (Anashim) we can see that the word begins with the word for human being – Ish, and ends with the name for God – El. And what is left in the middle is the letter Reish. The name can be understood as signifying something of the relationship between God and Humanity; the letter Reish is the bridge between the two, the place of the wrestling and struggling which is the pathway to God.

What is this connecting letter, the Reish? Well it comes almost at the end of the Hebrew alphabet, but its meaning is primarily to do with beginning – it is connected to the word Rosh meaning ‘head’ or Rishon -‘beginning’.  The word ‘Reish’ is also part of the very first word of Torah, Bereishit, famously translated as ‘in the beginning’ but actually part of a very ambiguous phrase – it could mean “with Reishit God created….”  or even “for the sake of Reishit God created” and the rabbinic traditional exegetical process then develops to understand “Reishit” as meaning “Wisdom”. And what is true Wisdom? Surely it is Torah. So Jacob becoming Israel could be seen as the realigning (from the curvature of the heel to the straightening of yashar) of the relationship between God and humanity through Reish, through new beginnings or through Torah.

Two events happen in between the two texts about the renaming of Jacob.

One is the meeting and reconciliation with his brother Esau, after which Jacob continues his journey to Canaan and Esau back to his own land.

The second event is the story of Dinah and the Prince of Shechem, where Jacob is passive and his sons unleash horrible violence upon the Shechemites when they are recovering from their circumcisions in order to be able to marry into the family of Jacob. Jacob is passive but he does speak and act at the end – He accuses Shimon and Levi of putting himself and his family into danger by their actions and he follows God’s imperative to go to Beit El and to fulfil his vow made there when he had woken from his dream of the ladder. Jacob takes all the idolatrous artefacts from his household and buries them in Shechem, and then he brings his newly cleansed household to Beit El ready to start his new life in the Land.  It is at this point that God names him once more.

In each of these stories there is one common thread – at first Jacob is passive and then reactive to the immediate circumstance, then he eventually  does act to try to do the right thing, and then he moves on.

The letter Reish is written as a curve, rather like a person with head bent over. It is often mistaken for the letter Dalet which is all sharp angles and straight lines. It has been noted that the Reish symbolises the one who searches out a number of directions, bending and swaying around, while the Dalet looks neither right nor left but moves onwards to its destination. If the Reish in Israel is the bridge between humanity and God, the process that takes the one to the other, then it makes a lot of sense that this letter is chosen, the one that bends and sways, the one that symbolises new beginnings and uncertainties, fresh starts and reservations. For that is what we always do, we feel our way through life uncertainly, responding as best we can with what we know, making mistakes. We make mistakes but then we make another new beginning. We use our heads and increase our wisdom as we experience our lives, and we hope that this life journey will eventually bring us closer to God.

Jacob becomes Israel but stays Jacob till his death. He does not prevail, instead he increases in his ability to live life even while making mistakes.  Scripture is right to see both his reality (Jacob) and his aspiration (Israel) alongside each other, for sometimes one is expressed and sometimes the other. We don’t find holiness in one moment or with one action – holiness is the sum of all our actions and the way we learn from them and change because of them.  Jews are certainly Israel in that we struggle with God and with people as did Jacob. But I would take issue with the understanding of “tuchal” as meaning we prevail in the struggle. Rather I would rather see that verb in its more primary meaning of being able. We struggle to bridge many gaps in life, we struggle to build a bridge between the heavens and the earth, between aspiration and reality, between people who find each other difficult – and the naming of Jacob reminds us that each failure, as well as each success, can bring us closer to forming that bridge, and making it secure.