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Shemot 5784    January 6,2024

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Voldemort- Tom Riddle – If you have read any of the Harry Potter books, you know that this is the name of the evil sorcerer who believes that the only thing that prevents him from taking over the world is Harry Potter, who has somehow never been a victim of his evil magic. He is so feared by the wizarding world in the book that most of the people refuse to even say his name. They just refer to him as “He who must not be named.” Harry Potter’s mentor teaches him “always use the proper names for things. Fear of the name only increases the fear of the thing itself.”

The proper name of our Parsha this week, is Shemot, Names. Because it is the first Parsha of this second book of the bible, the entire book takes on the name Shemot. I wish I could tell you that it is about secret names, but it is not. Shemot is one of the first words in the book, so the entire book takes on the name of its first words: Eleh Shemot, “These are the names.”

My friend, Mark Frydenberg, who teaches at Bently College in Boston, taught this week that for a book called, “Names,” there are a lot of unnamed people in it. We have a new king in Egypt, but we don’t know his name. There is a Levite who marries a Levite woman; they have a son, and we are not given their names. A baby is placed in a basket by his unnamed mother and is watched by his unnamed sister until the unnamed daughter of Pharoah sends an unnamed servant to fetch the basket; and she doesn’t really name the baby until this unnamed baby is returned to the unnamed princess after the child is weaned by his unnamed mother who was hired as his wet nurse. The boy grows; he kills an unnamed taskmaster, has to flee where he meets the seven daughters of Reuel, all of whom are not named until he married one of them, Ziporah. On an unnamed day this man, in an unnamed place, meets God in a burning bush; but while God tells Moses the divine name, it is the strangest name of them all. It is not really a name, but a description of what God does: “I will be what I will be.” Your high school English teacher would mark your paper in red ink if you tried to name something with a verb.

Most people today are not really very good at remembering names. Science tells us that this is because when we are told a name, our minds are not focused on remembering the name. But even if we could remember names, there are many people who are in our lives everyday who do not have a name.

There is a story of a professor in a Medical School who gave a test to his medical students. One of the questions on the test was, “What is the name of the janitor in this building?” Many of the students were mad at this question because they wanted to show off their brilliant minds, and they just didn’t know the name, and were unhappy not to get a perfect score on the test. “Why do we need to know the name of the janitor?” They asked, “How will that make us better doctors?” The professor stared at the students in anger and said, “You better know the name of the person who cleans up after you!”

Another story: A rabbi in Germany and his son take a walk every day along a country road. And every day they greet the farmer who is working the nearby fields. “Good morning, Herr Muller” the rabbi would call out, and the farmer always replied, “Good morning Mr. Rabbi.” But times change and the Nazi party came into power; the rabbi and his son were placed in a detention camp and eventually shipped to a death camp. As they got off the train there was a selection. A high ranking officer was sorting the Jews. Some went to the left and were sent to the gas chambers. Others, who might be of use, were sent to the right to be spared for another day. As the rabbi and his son got closer to the officer, the voice sounded familiar. When it was their turn, the rabbi said, “Good morning, Herr Muller.” The officer replied, “Good morning, Mr. Rabbi,” then, realizing what had just happened, blurted out, “What are you doing here…..?” The question faded away because everyone knew why the rabbi was there. The officer regained his composure and pointed to the right, to life. A day or so later, the rabbi and his son were moved to a work camp and eventually survived the war. All because of a name.

How many names of the people around us do we know? Do we know the name of our letter carrier? Do we know the names of the people who walk past our home every morning; even if we wave hello to them, do we know their names? We visit the office of our doctors, but do we know the names of the nurses and clerks who work there? If we are lucky, they are wearing a name badge, but do we ever call them by name? Think of the people who we see every time we go into the bank, the post office, the grocery store. We recognize the faces, but we often don’t know their names. Do we take the time to remember the name of the server who takes our order for dinner? And do we even ask the name of the person who comes and fills our water glass? An entire sitcom, “Cheers” was based on a concept of a bar where, “everyone knows your name.”

One hundred thirty-six hostages from Israel are still being held in Gaza. 136 is just a number. Do we know their names? I admit learning 136 names is a big task, but do we know ANY of their names? Their names and faces are on the wall in the hall outside our sanctuary. Are we afraid to know their names because tomorrow they could be declared dead? Ronan Engel was a hostage that we adopted at the beginning of this catastrophe. We had his name on the chair on this bima. A month ago, he was declared dead. It was a dark day for me and many others who had prayed for him by name every week. He was not just another hostage. We knew his name.

“Eleh Shemot- These are the names.” 600,000 men were enslaved in Egypt. We are given only the names of just a few; the leaders of the tribes, Moses and his family, and the few troublemakers in the crowd. In one place, the Torah actually protects the identity of one of the men. An unnamed man breaks the law and gathers sticks on Shabbat. It is a capital crime, and he is put to death. His family is spared the dishonor of having his name published.

Centuries later, the great Rabbi Akiva declared that he knew the name of this man; he said his name was Zelophehad, the father of the seven women who insisted on their rights to inherit their father’s estate, despite the fact their father died from his sin like all the other people in the desert. The other sages scolded Rabbi Akiva, “you have either named a man for a crime that the Torah thought should not be named, or you have accused an innocent man of the crime. Why would you dishonor someone in that way?”

Sometimes we call people not by their name but by our relationship to them. The Gardner, the Letter carrier, the Cashier, the Server, the Boss. Sometimes we call them by bad names: “the one who cheated me,” “the one who attacked me,” “the SOB who cut me off in traffic.” Sometimes they get good names, “the one who was kind to me,,” “the honest man in the store,” “the good kid that helped me pick up the stuff that I dropped.”

In this week’s Parsha, we are formally introduced to God, the one character that everyone knows but nobody pronounces God’s name. Partially this is out of fear, that to speak the name of God is to risk being struck dead. We can’t see God and live. The formal name of God, the name we replaced with Adonai, has long been forgotten and nobody is trying to recover it. It was a magical name that could do all kinds of miracles, but we gave up miracles a long time ago and the world is now our responsibility to tend.

So, the only question left is the name we call ourselves. We were given a name, of course, by our parents, and our friends often have a nickname that they call us by. We may even have a formal title: Doctor, Professor, Rabbi. There is also a name that we call ourselves in our private moments. It is usually not a very accurate name. Some good people think that no matter what anyone says, they give themselves a bad name they have not really earned. Some bad people, no matter what anyone says, give themselves a good name that they have not really earned.

But the most important name of all is the one we earn every day through our actions. We know of course that we are not perfect. We know we make mistakes, say the wrong thing at the wrong time. We know that we don’t always act with the best of intentions. What the Torah teaches us is that what matters is the long list of accomplishments that we accrue during our lives. Every person in the Torah, from Adam and Eve to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and yes, even Moses, no person in the Bible is perfect, but they rose to the occasion when God needed them, and they are only remembered for the good things they did during their lives.

Dr. Arnold Eisen, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a few years ago: The book of Exodus begins with the names of those who went down to Egypt, one by one, the better perhaps to challenge us to add our names to the list of those who bring the world up from Egypt. We do so guided and informed by the covenant agreed upon at Sinai.” What we are called upon to do is to add our names to the book of Shemot/Names. Can we, despite our flaws, live up to the guidance given to us by Moses?

The covenant calls to us: it asks us, “When it really matters, did we show up? Did we lend a hand? Did we offer a shoulder to cry on? Did we build someone up who was feeling down?” The Torah teaches us that, in the end, we are known by our acts of kindness.

Shakespeare, in his play, “Julius Caesar” puts these words into the mouth of Marc Antony when he is giving a eulogy for Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” I think he is wrong. I think it is exactly the opposite. The mistakes we make are soon forgotten but the good that we do lives long after we are gone. This is how we make a name for ourselves, by letting others know that they can rely on us to do what is right and good.

As we begin a secular new year, we should think about the unnamed people in our lives and recognize them by name. We need to be kind in the way we assign an identity to other people. We must not be quick to attach a bad name to anyone. And we should also concentrate on what we do to build a good name for ourselves. This is the best way to become a better person, to build a better life, and to create a lasting legacy.

“Eleh Shemot, these are the names.” Our names are more than a line on our driver’s license. Our name is the way we are identified in the world. What kind of a name would YOU like to have? Only you can make a name for yourself in the world.

May our God without a name bless us with a worthy name as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784