The First Book of Samuel teaches, “just as his name, so too is his essence” (I Samuel 25:25). Such wisdom reflects more than a kernel of truth. Names may speak to one’s past as well as one’s hopes for the future. And the languages by which we name become all the more significant. For the Jewish people especially, this is no easy task. Throughout history, we have been blessed by a plurality of both Hebrew and foreign names. Our nomenclature is colored by the rich cultures and countries in which w have found ourselves — Italy, Spain, Yemen, Syria, England, and the United States. Indeed, dual allegiance defines who we are as a people living in the Diaspora and such tension is often reflected in how we name our children. Typically, children are given a name that blends in to the larger culture; and in addition, we give them Yiddish or Hebrew names. As the Book of Genesis approaches its conclusion, we realize the significance of names and naming — especially at the heart of the Joseph story.
In Parashat Miketz, Joseph becomes both a celebrity and hero. Having been imprisoned in Egypt as a result of the deception of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph, with the help of God, becomes a dream interpreter. He successfully predicts the fate of his fellow prisoners, the cupbearer and chief baker; and although the cupbearer “did not think of Joseph and forgot him” after his salvation, the disturbing dream of Pharaoh leads the cupbearer back to the Hebrew prisoner. As Pharaoh wrestles with his nighttime encounters with seven sturdy cows and seven lean cows, and then with seven full ears of grain and seven lean stalks, his chief cupbearer recalls Joseph’s talent. And to Joseph’s great blessing, he is summoned by Pharaoh and correctly interprets the dreams as forecasting a famine. Appreciative of his insight, Pharaoh labels Joseph as “a man in whom is the spirit of God” (Genesis 41:38) and subsequently appoints the Hebrew as his vizier. What is most notable, though is Joseph’s transformation. Not only does he don the royal clothing of an Egyptian monarch, but Pharaoh changes his name to Zaphenath–paneah and he marries Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Quite suddenly, Joseph sheds his Hebrew identity as he rises to become one of the most powerful rulers in Egypt. What then, does Joseph’s new name mean? And how do names and the act of naming shed light on our own experience today?
Nahum Sarna explains the etymology of Zaphenath–paneah: “Traditional exegesis connects the name with Joseph’s penchant for interpreting dreams, seeing in the first element a derivation from the Hebrew stem ts–f–n, ‘to hide,’ and rendering the second, contextually, ‘elucidate.’ The name would thus mean “revealer of hidden things.” However, an Egyptian origin is evident, and a widely held view regards it as the transcription . . . ‘God speaks; he lives.'” (Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 287–288). Taking his cue from rabbinic exegesis, Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests “the name could perhaps mean ‘he with whom the most secret things are kept.'” (Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, 584). Indeed, Joseph is all of the above. In choosing this particular name, Pharaoh found a title that speaks to his experience of Joseph — both as an interpreter of secrets and as one in whom God speaks and the people live.
But perhaps more than these explanations, there is the need to give Joseph an Egyptian name. No doubt, this makes him more palatable to the Egyptian people, especially given that he is second in power to Pharaoh and that he “traveled through all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:46). While the name change is understandable, clearly Joseph is conflicted about his acculturation. Soon after his meteoric rise to power, he and his Egyptian wife give birth to two sons, who they name Ephraim and Menashe. Far from eschewing his roots (and counter to Joseph’s ostensible explanation of the name Menashe — that “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (Genesis 41:51), Joseph yearns to reconnect, and he does so by giving his sons Hebrew names. Joseph has not forgotten his hardship; neither has he abandoned his parental home. Zaphaneth–paneah remembers his essence.
Parashat Miketz highlights the tensions embedded in Jewish identity in the Diaspora. We seek the best of the culture in which we live; and at the same time, hold fast to the roots that have made us the people we are today.
Shabbat shalom, Hodesh tov, and Hag Urim sameah,
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz