What’s in a Name

Miketz By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 11, 2004 / 5765

Names and titles speak to our very essence. This truism becomes all the more clear as we explore Parashat Miketz. We delve further into the narrative of Joseph and his brothers as a severe famine plagues Egypt and its environs. Because of Joseph’s foresight and planning, the Egyptians are spared the hunger that strikes other nations in the Near East and thus, Egypt becomes a refuge and storehouse for those seeking grain. In the midst of this tragedy, Jacob turns to his remaining sons and declares, “there are rations to be had in Egypt. Go down and procure rations for us there, that we may live and not die” (Genesis 42:2). The Torah continues thus, “so ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt …” (42:3). Given the enmity between Joseph and his brothers, especially their scheming that leads to Joseph’s exile to Egypt, it is ironic that the text refers to these brothers as “Joseph’s brothers” rather than as “Jacob’s sons.” What does this subtle yet profound difference teach us about the inner lives of the brothers?

A collection of commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Bereishit Rabba 91:6, openly critiques our verse: “Scripture should have said, ‘Jacob’s sons.’ Why does it state ‘Joseph’s brothers’? Because in the beginning they did not treat him like a brother, for they sold him into servitude, but in the end they regretted what they had done. Every day they would say, ‘when will we be going down to Egypt to bring our brother back to his father?’ And when their father told them to go down to Egypt, they were all as one in their resolve to bring him back.” While, on a more cursory reading of the text, one may sense that Joseph’s brothers have all but forgotten about him, the Rabbis endeavor to show a merciful side to Joseph’s siblings. Though enmity motivated their actions many years before, they have arrived at a position of compassion and sincere regret. Bereishit Rabba hints at the potential for human transformation and the ever–present possibility of teshuvah, repentance or return. Longing to see their abandoned brother, Jacob’s sons embrace the mission presented to them – with the hope of finding Joseph alive. Far from being a simple qualifier, “Joseph’s brothers” speaks to a radical transformation and maturation of his siblings. They have come to realize the profound meaning of brotherhood.

Perhaps, this is what makes God’s response to Moses in Exodus 3 all the more striking. When Moses asks God’s name, God responds cryptically, “I am what I may be” (Exodus 3:14). God’s name is pregnant with meaning. Rabbi Abba bar Mammal teaches, “the Holy One said to Moses: ‘You wish to know My Name. I am variously called in keeping with my many diverse deeds. When I judge created beings, I am called Elohim. When I wage war against the wicked, I am called Tzevaot (hosts). When I hold out the possibility of repentance, I am called El Shaddai. And when I have mercy on My world I am called Adonai. Hence I am what I may be” (Exodus Rabba 3:6). God resists definition. And as we are created in the image of God, so too should we eschew such nomenclature. We are as we will be – and just as Joseph’s brothers, we must allow for the potential of growth and change.

As Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772–1811) teaches, “If you are not going to be any better tomorrow than you were today, then what need have you for tomorrow?” May we strive to realize names of kindness, mercy and repentance.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.