Shemot - And These Are the Names

Our Torah portion this week begins this way, “And these are the names.” In beginning the history of the Jewish people in Egypt, Torah recounts the names of all the sons of Jacob, the heads of the tribes, who came into Egypt with him. These names are from more than 3000 years ago.

Yet four of them are still popular today in the United States: Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, and Jacob. In fact, two of my children, whose English names are Bryan and Janet, have named their sons Jacob and Benjamin. Two other tribal names, Reuben and Shimon or Simon, are heard from time to time. Among the rest of the tribal names two are still used today with only minor changes- Yehudah, which is Judah or Judith, and Levi, which was the name of Levi Strauss, the founder of Levis. My newest granddaughter bears the Hebrew name Liviyah, a feminine form of Levi.

When we delve into our Torah, it is as if the distant past is only yesterday. When we continue the names of our grandparents and great-grandparents, the past lives into the future. The custom among Ashkenazi Jews, from Europe and Asia, is to name their children after relatives who have gone up to their heavenly reward. The custom among Sephardi Jews, from Africa and the Arab lands, is to name them after living relatives.

In both cases, what is significant is that Jewish children carry on the life mission of someone who is their elder. We are a people of history, and passing on a name is the highest honor we can bestow on someone.

The name does not have to be exact. It can just be the first initial, or it can be a word that carries the same meaning. What is important is that the intention to connect the two souls be present.

In the Jewish book of wisdom sayings, Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Tarfon said(II:21): it is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to neglect it. lo alecha hamlachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben horin l’ibateyl memenah. There is no person who sees all his dreams to completion in his lifetime. We all need a future generation to carry on for us.

And if we do not have biological children, well then, we can help and teach our neighbor’s. Torah accounts the reward for doing so as great as if they were our own.

When we do an act of chesed- of kindness and generosity, and we do so because we have been inspired by those who came before us, our role models, we bring Torah forward. May the names of those who came before us always be for a blessing.