This week we start reading the book of Exodus. We ended Genesis by reading of the loss of all that was familiar to us —Jacob and Joseph have both died, and the family is now living in Egypt with no leader. Joseph’s last request to his brothers is to bring him home with them whenever it is they return to the land of Israel. We are left with a hint that the future will be a future of hope and return.
But as the book of Exodus begins, we hear the names of the sons of Jacob, and then we’re told that a new king has arisen who doesn’t know Joseph. It’s disheartening to us, because all of Jacob’s children were protected by their connection to Joseph, a great Egyptian leader. In fact, shortly afterwards, the Jews are enslaved and the baby boys are targeted. We wonder how Joseph could be so easily forgotten by an empire he helped rule.
The missing piece lies in the Hebrew name of this book: Shemot. The name literally means ‘Names’, and now we understand that it isn’t the person Joseph who is forgotten, it is the name ‘Joseph’. As modern, western Jews, we most relate to Joseph because he is the Jewish person in our Torah who lives in two realities, two different cultures. While in Israel, he is only known as Joseph, but once he lives in Egypt, he gets another name, an Egyptian name.
After Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, and is promoted to second-in-command, Pharaoh gives him a wife and a new name. It is hard to imagine that anyone in Egypt would ever refer to him with any other name than the one Pharaoh gave him. The Torah will never use the Egyptian name, he will always be Joseph to us, but he ceases to be Joseph in his new identity. When a new king arises, the text says he doesn’t know Joseph, but perhaps he doesn’t know the name ‘Joseph’ and only knows him by his Egyptian name.
Today, we understand that our identities sit in the two cultures we live within. Like Joseph, we have our Jewish name and our secular name. We use our Jewish name when we are in shul, engaged in Jewish ritual, but when we are in the larger world outside, functioning in our professions, we use our English names. Quite often, our two worlds remain divided and unaware of each other.
Joseph was not comfortable moving between his two worlds, and in the end, his Hebrew name disappeared from Egyptian history. We learn that our Jewish identities are not to be quietly hidden, or erased, but are to be brought into our lives everywhere we go. The new book we begin this Shabbat is called Shemot, and when we ask ‘what’s in a name’, the answer is: everything.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat —our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.