This week, Jews around the world will gather to hear the first verses of the book of Exodus, or, in Hebrew, Shemot. Exodus is the second book of the Torah, and (spoiler!) the main event is the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt in chapter 20. Actually, the whole book is full of action-packed moments, a far cry from the next book, Leviticus, that reads like a very extensive list of rules and regulations. Shemot is an action film, all smoke and explosions and plagues, while Leviticus is more of a documentary, pacing itself and focusing on details.
All of this is to say that I could write plenty about the first chapters of Exodus. Chapter one alone tells the story of Pharaoh’s decree to throw all Hebrew males into the Nile, the midwives saving Hebrew children, the birth of Moses, and his being saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter. That’s enough material for at least a Netflix mini-series.
Part of why we read the text of the Torah every year, over and over again is to glean further insight from each reading. Every year we’re different, and, as a result, different aspects of the text will stand out to us. This year, when I read this week’s Torah portion, I was struck by the very first verse.
“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household,” says Exodus 1:1. Seems pretty straightforward. Still, I find myself wondering why this is here at all. In a finite book, with much drama to cover, there are five verses dedicated to naming each of the brothers, all of whom we’ve already met, and stating the number of Israelites that migrated south to the land of the Pharaohs. For comparison, the whole story of the Tower of Babel, start to finish, happens in nine verses.
The more I think about it, it’s significant that Exodus starts with a list of names, a list that gives the whole book its Hebrew title. Shemot, literally translated, means names, not Exodus. The English title was given to us by Greek translators a whole lot later.
What’s in a name? This question was made famous by Shakespeare’s Juliet, but I think the young star-crossed lover is wrong. Juliet’s point, in her famous balcony monologue, was that a name is just a word, a man-made paradigm that can just as easily be changed. Montague, Capulet, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to. Whatever.
But it’s not just whatever.
These days, I’m parenting a toddler who’s just learning how to speak, and I’m thinking a lot about what we call things, places, feelings. My wife and I puzzled over what to call our little one for months, ending up bestowing upon our child a name meant to recall the characteristics of family members who are no longer with us and honor their memories. But naming doesn’t end when a baby is born. Not hardly. The truth is that we’re constantly giving voice to what things are — shapes, colors, emotions, societal paradigms, expectations, acceptable behaviors, boundaries. My wife and I spend our whole day hyper-aware of the words we use in our home.
One thing we’re facing these days is the fact that, sometimes, our toddler bangs his head when he’s upset or frustrated. Do I call it a tantrum? The terrible twos? An outburst?
The word ‘tantrum’ itself feels dismissive, implying that our kid’s emotions aren’t important or complex. But our kids are little people, figuring things out just as we are. How can I help someone who can say so few words give voice to emotions like disappointment, frustration, or anger? How can I help explain these same emotions to myself, so that I know how to both model behavior when I’m frustrated and also hold space for my child to feel whatever he’s feeling?
It’s so hard. Some days I just want to eat a tray of fudge brownies and not think so much.
Which is why I’m very grateful to this week’s Torah portion for reminding me of the power of saying names aloud. Start by saying the names of the brothers, calling to mind each of their meanings as they were explained in Genesis (B’reshit). Then tell us the titles given to storage cities in which the Israelites were forced to work. Don’t stop there. Who were Moses’ parents? Who were his siblings? What did they call the midwives who saved the newborn Israelites from the rushing waters of the Nile?
With each recitation, the shadow of whoever is being recalled takes on a physical form, bone and flesh. Think how much shorter this text would be if we left out all the names. How much less potent.
I thought about this yesterday when I held my frustrated child. A tower we’d built had just toppled over, inducing cries and, yes, headbanging. I put my hand beneath the little toddler’s head and said, “That was hard, wasn’t it? It’s disappointing to build something and see it fall over.” Brown eyes, all watery with tears, peered at me through a mane of curls. I get a hug. By giving the wave of feeling a word, maybe it makes it easier to manage.
By giving words, I believe we are conjuring shapes. This is as powerful an act as creation itself. In fact, in a way, we are creating a reality by naming shapes, colors, emotions. We decide the words that will make up our and our child’s world, which is a thrilling prospect. And also kind of terrifying.
Some days, we will get it wrong. We’ll say the wrong word, or bestow a name on a situation that we wish we could take back. The lesson I’m taking from this week’s portion is to be aware of what I say. To hold the gravity of naming in my hands, and use it with care. To collaborate with my little one when creating our family reality. Working together, we can make sense of the world.