IT'S ALL IN THE NAME
In this new weekly column, we will try to uncover some of the inspiring messages hidden within Hebrew words, names and numbers related to the Torah portion or the time of year. What better time to start than with this week's reading of Parshat Shmot, meaning "Names," and what better name to start with than Moses, our revered teacher and leader.
When God created the animals, He chose Adam to assign their names (Genesis 2:19). The sages teach us that Adam looked into the essence of each animal and was able to give a name befitting its identity. Similarly, each name and word in the Torah is not a random set of characters, but a hint at the essence of the person or the item. By looking closely at Moses’ Hebrew name, Moshe, three of his attributes become apparent.
The name Moshe comes from the verb "to draw out of water," and was given to him by Pharaoh's daughter when she rescued him as he was drifting down the river in a basket (Exodus 2:10). Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch explains that Pharaoh's daughter gave Moshe this name in the hope that throughout his whole life, "he is never to forget that he was thrown into the water and that I drew him out of it. Therefore all his life he is to have a soft heart for other people's troubles and always be on the alert to be a 'Moshe,' a deliverer in times of distress. His Hebrew name always kept the consciousness of his origin awake within him."
Throughout Moshe's life, he was constantly focused on achieving the mission hinted at in his name: to be a deliverer to the Jews, and to constantly ease others' pain. Moshe was a shepherd, both literally and figuratively. Before becoming the leader of the Jews, he was a shepherd in Midian and was known for the care and concern he showed to his flock. So too Moshe led the Jews from slavery in Egypt, and carried their problems on his shoulders during the forty years in the desert.
The Midrash records that Moshe had many names, but the name his parents gave him at birth was not Moshe. Why did he use the name Moshe, though it was given three months after his birth?
Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky answers this question in his book, And You Shall Speak of Them. Moshe "retained the name to never forget one who had acted toward him with great kindness. Whenever he was addressed as Moshe, it would remind him of his being drawn from the water by Batya, daughter of Pharaoh, and he would thank her in his heart." It is often difficult to remember the good that other people do for us, so Moshe kept his name as a constant reminder of the good that had been shown to him.
Moshe learned this lesson well, as evidenced by his behavior later in life. Moshe performed each of the ten plagues himself, except for those involving water or land, which he asked Aaron to perform. Why did he do this? Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains that Moshe remembered the good that had been done to him by the Nile and by the dust of the land: the Nile protected him when his mother placed him into it, and the dust of the land hid the Egyptian man he had killed (ibid. 2:12). Because the river and the land had each helped Moshe, he considered it disrespectful to bring a plague on them. Moshe exemplified his name even during the most stressful times in Jewish history.
A final explanation of Moshe's name can be found through Gematria, the kabbalistic study where each Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and adding up the values of the letters in a word can explain the true depth of that word. Moshe's full name, Moshe Rabeinu (Moshe our teacher) has the numerical value of 613, which is the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Moshe's role as a leader was twofold: he not only brought the Torah to the Jews, but he also taught them how to follow it through his words and actions. Moshe embodied the Torah and the 613 mitzvot to such a complete degree that even his name demonstrates his great love.
By looking closely at Moshe's name, we can see the three defining qualities that he transmitted to the Jewish people. Moshe taught us to always be concerned for others, to acknowledge the good that others do for us, and to love the Torah and the mitzvot. As our leader and teacher, Moshe brought these attributes to the Jewish people, and it is our mission to try to achieve them.
This weekly column is dedicated in memory of my dear friend, Danny Miller, of blessed memory. Danny truly exemplified the qualities that Moshe brought to the Jewish people. Danny had a constant love of others and a desire to do good to all, an ability to see the good qualities in everyone, and a deep love of God's Torah and His mitzvot. His death is not only a loss to his family and friends, but also to those who never had the opportunity to learn from him.
Michael Gros is a graduate of Emory University. He currently lives in New York where he learns at Yeshiva Madreigas HaAdam and works as a writer and editor.
You are invited to read more Parshat Shmot articles.
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