Yitro | What's in a name?
The names Moses bestows on his two children are pregnant with meaning. They teach us about the primacy of the spirit, the dual nature of Jewish identity, and the urgent purpose with which we need to live our lives in order to forge an eternal legacy.
Names are important. When giving names to our children, we choose very carefully. Some agonise for weeks, even months, over them.
When our great prophets give names to their children and these names are recorded in the Torah, they are imbued with a cosmic significance. What is the meaning and the message of these names? What can they teach us?
At the beginning of Parshat Yitro, we are introduced to Moses’ two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Each of these names refers to different stages in Moses’ life. Gershom was so named because Moses “was a stranger (ger) in a foreign land” – referring to the fact that Moses had fled Egypt as a fugitive and sought refuge in the foreign land of Midian.
Moses named his second son Eliezer because: “The G-d of my father came to my aid (b’ezri) and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword” – a reference to the Divine assistance G-d provided Moses after he came to the defence of a Jew who was being attacked by an Egyptian, killing the Egyptian in the ensuing scuffle. Hearing of the incident, Pharaoh himself put a tag on Moses’ head, but Moses managed to escape to Midian.
The commentators are puzzled by two questions. Moses named his first son Gershom and his second son Eliezer, yet the respective incidents to which their names refer happened in the reverse order. Moses escaped Pharaoh (following the incident with the Egyptian taskmaster) and only then settled in Midian as a ‘stranger’. In other words, G-d saved Moses from the sword of Pharaoh before he became exiled in Midian. So why was his first son called Gershom and his second son called Eliezer? Furthermore, Moses naming his son Eliezer – which is derived from the Hebrew for “(G-d is) my help” – was a statement of praise and gratitude to G-d. But naming his other son Gershom, from the Hebrew word for “stranger”, seems oddly negative. Was Moses complaining about the fact that he was a stranger in a foreign land?
A tale of two exiles
The Sforno, a 16th century commentator from Italy, addresses the question of why the name Eliezer was given to his second son and not his first. He explains that, although Moses found temporary sanctuary in Midian, his deliverance from the “sword of Pharaoh” was only secured later on; he was never truly safe until Pharaoh died, which happened sometime after the birth of his first son. Thus the opportunity to express his praise and gratitude to G-d for saving him from Pharaoh only occurred when his second son was born, hence the name Eliezer.
In his commentary, Oznaim LaTorah, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, the great Lithuanian commentator, takes an alternative approach. He says the name Gershom refers not to Moses’ exile in Midian, but rather to his exile in Egypt, and thus the order of the names makes sense. (Moses was first a stranger in Egypt, and later needed G-d’s help when Pharaoh pursued him.)
Interestingly, this interpretation actually fits the verse quite well. Moses says: “I was a stranger (ger) in a foreign land” while still in Midian, implying that this exile may indeed have happened somewhere prior to his arrival in Midian. Says Rav Sorotzkin, Moses enjoyed incredible status in Egypt. He lived in the palace, was raised by the princess herself, and was an adopted grandson of Pharaoh. And yet despite this status, he remained a “stranger” – because the moment he came out in defence of the Jewish people, he was ostracised and marked for death. Rav Sorotzkin points out the significance of this for all of Jewish history. No matter where Jews have settled, no matter how long we live there, we remain in a certain way strangers in these lands. It is our lot as the Jewish people to wander from place to place; to be “strangers in a foreign land” no matter where we are.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the great 20th century Jewish thinker, explains this idea in a broader context. He notes that when Abraham begins negotiating with the people of Chet to buy a burial plot for his wife Sarah, he refers to himself as “a stranger and a resident among you”. Rav Soloveitchik says this is a reference to the dual dimension of Jewish identity within the context of broader society. On the one hand, we’re a “resident”, which means we participate fully in society – we contribute to the advancement of the places in which we live, we strive to be loyal, dedicated, productive citizens, we share the hopes and aspirations of our compatriots. And yet, at the same time, we’re also “strangers” – we are faithful to the values of the Torah and attached to the particular destiny of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. These are aspects of our identity we don’t share with the society around us.
The primacy of spirit
Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading halachicauthorities of the past 100 years, holds (unlike Rav Zalman Sorotzkin) that Gershom does refer to Moses’ exile in Midian, but takes a different approach to the Sforno in addressing the question of why his first child was named Gershom and his second child, Eliezer. Rav Feinstein explains that Gershom refers to the fact that Moses was not assimilated into the culture of Midian, that he remained distant from his host nation’s idolatrous practices, and true to G-d and to Jewish values. In essence, then, his remaining “a stranger in a foreign land” was a spiritual salvation, and therefore took precedence over the physical salvation from the sword of Pharaoh. This was why Moses named his first son Gershom, and his second son Eliezer – to demonstrate the primacy of his spiritual salvation; that the purpose of Moses’ physical survival was in order that the spiritual values that he stood for could continue in the world.
Here, again, there is strong symbolism relating to the dual nature of Jewish identity. On the one hand, there is our physical survival – something we haven’t been able to take for granted over centuries of persecution. Today, of course, we have the great G-d-given blessing of an independent Jewish State of Israel, which has been able to protect Jews from a physical point of view. But we have to remember that the ultimate purpose of Jewish history is not mere physical survival. We have a greater, higher purpose, and that is to live and embody the G-dly values of the Torah, and in so doing, to make this world a better place. That is why we are here. We are Gershom Jews before we are Eliezer Jews, and that is what Moses taught us by naming his children in that order.
Exile of the soul
The Ohr HaChaim’s view is that the name Gershom refers not to Moses’ exile in Egypt or in Midian, but to the soul’s exile in this world in general. In essence, we are all strangers in a foreign land. Our G-dly soul emanates from the heavens, from a world of perfect, pristine holiness, a world unencumbered by the limitations and untainted by the imperfections of the physical world. From up on high, G-d sends the soul into this world, to a place the soul doesn’t want to go. As the mishnain Pirkei Avotstates: “Against your will you are conceived and against your will you are born…” Against our will, G-d clothes our soul in a body and sends us into this world on an earthly mission. But that mission is G-dly in itself – to fulfil the Divine will through performing the mitzvot. And we can only do them down here; there are no mitzvot in the world to come, no Divine mission we can fulfil there, because there’s no free choice.
When we come into this world and we enter into a body, we are given free choice. The body pulls us in one direction, the soul pulls us in another. We have the freedom to decide how we are going to live our lives. That is our G-dly mission. It’s only a short journey – 120 years in the sweep of eternity is nothing – but its impact echoes through eternity. As the mishna in Pirkei Avot states: “One hour of good deeds and repentance in this world is better than an entire lifetime in the world to come. And one hour of pleasure in the world to come is better than an entire lifetime in this world.”
So the soul is a stranger in this world. And that, says the Or HaChaim, is why the name Gershom came first – because before Moses was saved from Pharaoh, he was a soul that entered reluctantly into a body and took its place in a “foreign” land.
Just passing through
The Chofetz Chaim elaborates on this idea. He says the name Gershom inspires us with a sense of urgent purpose. For if we keep in mind that, fundamentally, we are strangers in this world – travellers just passing through, and only here for a short period of time – that will change how we live. If we live with this consciousness, then every minute becomes precious and everything we do is directed towards accumulating as many mitzvot as we possibly can.
Of course, we have to function in this world as physical beings. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to rest, we need to look after the bodies G-d has given us. But this must be within the context of elevating ourselves through the mitzvot. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 231) actually says that everything we do should be dedicated to Heaven. When we eat and sleep, we should be doing so to re-energise ourselves to perform mitzvot, for that is the reason we were created, and it is for this higher purpose that we live.
Thus we see that the name Gershom – and even the simple fact that this was the name Moses gave his first-born – is pregnant with meaning. It tells us about the primacy of the spirit, the dual nature of Jewish identity, the urgent purpose with which we need to live our lives. Ultimately, it’s a reminder to ensure our journey through this world is filled with meaning, and that we make a lasting impact that becomes our eternal legacy.