The act of “naming” is a God–like act that speaks to relationship and power. In Genesis chapter 1 verse 5, “God calls the light ‘Day’ and the darkness ‘Night.’ ” Commenting on this verse, the editors of Etz Hayim explain the import of God’s naming exercise: “Not to possess a name is tantamount to nonexistence in the worldview of the ancient Near East.. . . Name giving was thus associated with creation and domination, for the one who gives a name has power over the object named” (Etz Hayim, 5). Having created human beings in God’s own image, it is not surprising, then, that God endows them with the power of naming other creatures. Subsequently, Genesis chapter 2 verse 19 speaks of the magnanimous divine gesture in power–sharing: “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.” Such a power gives humans the ability to distinguish and to dominate, to define and to demote. It is a power that is not to be taken lightly. Accordingly, Parashat Sh’mot, which opens the Book of Exodus, contains a compelling and instructive instance of “naming.”
As Pharaoh prepares to move against the Israelites, he makes a chilling declaration: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase” (Exodus 1:9–10). Notably, this is the first time in Torah that the nation is referred to as “am b’nai Yisrael,” literally “the people of the Children of Israel.” Jacob’s individual descendants have grown into a nation, and they are “recognized” as such by Pharaoh. In an act of definition and domination, Pharaoh points to the “enemy nation.”
The label places boundaries about this people; the Egyptians can now separate the insider from the outsider. It propels the Israelites to the margins of Egyptian society as the oppression ensues. Professor Ze’ev Falk, z”l, remarks that Pharaoh’s nickname for the Israelites is more recent than the expression “Children of Israel” (B’nai Yisrael) but it is older than the name “Nation of Israel” (Am Yisrael). Still he goes on to note the most significant aspect of Pharaoh’s “naming”: God later adopts Pharaoh’s expression. In commissioning Moses to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt, God transforms Pharaoh’s label into his own affectionate title for the people: “take out my people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Rather than simply referring to the Israelites as the anonymous and rootless “am b’nai Yisrael, ” “people of the Children of Israel,” God takes ownership of them. Exodus chapter 7 verse 4 reinforces this view: “I have removed my hosts, my people, the Children of Israel (ami b’nai Yisrael) from the Land of Egypt.”
The subtle, yet significant transition from Pharaonic nomenclature to a divine title is telling. God takes ownership of the people, and in doing so, God expresses not only God’s dominion, but more importantly, God’s desire to care for the Children of Israel. They are not simply the rootless and uncared–for nation that Pharaoh perceived them to be; they are now a nation in the embrace of God, warmly cared for and on a journey to the Promised Land.
May God always look down upon us and identify us lovingly as “my people, the Children of Israel”!
With wishes for a good week and Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.