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Shemot: What does our name mean to others?

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The Chief Rabbi’s weekly insight for Parshat Shemot.


Are names boring?

Picture the scene. You’re at a simcha, a happy event, and the host stands up, as hosts do, welcomes this one and that one, mentions this relative and the other – so and so who’s come from afar and then of course those who are unfortunately not with us. Name after name after name. You’re not a member of the family, you’re not familiar with these names. Do you find them boring?

Actually no. And that’s because you appreciate that some people must be mentioned because it’s thanks to them that this simcha is actually taking place. It’s because of what they have invested, either recently or way back in the past, to enable those who are celebrating to come together for a most wonderful occasion.

The Book of Names

This shabbat we will read Parshat Shemot, the portion of names, and it comes at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, the book of names. There are so many lists of names in the Torah. Sometimes the names are familiar, often they are not. What’s particularly intriguing is that this list of names at the beginning of our parsha are very familiar. They’re the children of Yaakov Avinu, those who came originally into Egypt. We already know these names and we know these details. Why is it mentioned right at the beginning of the book?

So the Midrash explains that the Torah here wants us to appreciate the contribution of these tzaddikim. Each and every one of them, says the Midrash, had a pure soul and was a great person.

Rashi adds that these names were mentioned at the end of the book of Bereishit in order to provide praise for what people did in their lifetime. Now these names are mentioned at the beginning of Shemot, to praise them once they had passed away, because their impact continues to be with us.


So the Torah therefore mentions names in order to show appreciation. If not for these great, wonderful people, we wouldn’t be here as a nation to this day.

So what is the takeaway for us all? I believe we should be asking ourselves the question, “What does our name mean to others?” Not that we want our name to be on lists that are read out or engraved on buildings but rather, what is the impact we are making? To what degree are we influencing events and people now, and to what extent are we investing in the future of the world?

A good name

Let us ensure that through our deeds, through our words and through everything that we do, we will provide a beracha, a great blessing for those around us. In appreciation of what King Solomon taught,

“Tov shem mishemen tov,” – “A good name is more important than the finest of oils.”

And the Mishnah teaches,

“V’keter shem tov oleh al gabeihem,” – “The crown of a good name supersedes all.”

Shabbat shalom.


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