What’s in a name? Everything.
TorahParshat Shemot

What’s in a name? Everything.

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

(File photo)
(File photo)

The second book of the Torah is called “Shemot.” Is that because that is the second word of the book? Or is there a deeper reason for that name?

The word “Shemot” means “names.” The first verse states, “These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt,” and the Torah continues with their names. But what is the significance of the word “names” to the grand tale of the slavery and redemption of the Children of Israel which follows those introductory lines?

In fact, “Shemot” is the secret to surviving exile. Exile causes far more than physical suffering. The misery and the oppression threaten a person’s very essence, causing them to forget who they are. They end up without an identity, and that is the ultimate human tragedy. A person reduced to a use.

The Children of Israel emerged from Egypt with their identity intact. Their faith in G-d, which they inherited from their parents and grandparents, was there for them when they needed it to follow Moses to freedom. They knew who they were and what they believed in and stood for. That saved them.

And how did they retain their identity? Where did they get that strength and ability from? From their names. Before lowering them into slavery and exile, G-d calls them by name. “These are the names of the Children of Israel coming to Egypt: Reuven! Shimon! Levi!” and so on. By calling them by name, G-d imprints in their identities, deep in their minds and hearts — deeper than exile can reach. They are called by their names, and their names enable them to hold on to themselves, to keep their wits about them through the most dehumanizing experiences, and to emerge on the other end, not only alive and well, but stronger than before — ready to receive the Torah at Sinai. That is the power of a name.

As the director of the Aleph Institute Northeast, an organization dedicated to the lives and needs of Jewish men and women behind bars, this message hits a raw nerve in my heart. Prison has four purposes: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. And it is the last purpose, rehabilitation, that pains me. Much is said about it, but to our misfortune and national shame, not enough is actually done about it. Too often, a person emerges from prison worse off than when he or she came in. They have been ruined, not rehabilitated.

My purpose here is not to cast aspersions or assign blame. Instead, perhaps we could take a page out of the Torah and institute a simple, easy measure: Prisoners should be called by their names. Prison staff and guards risk nothing by simply using the prisoners’ names. The more dignity afforded a prisoner, the more dignified the prisoner can become. And certainly dignity lies right at the soul of rehabilitation. By using the inmate’s given name, we help him or her recall their true identity: who they really are, what they really believe and what they stand for.

Is this asking too much? I think it is not.

We are told that the Children of Israel not only emerged from exile stronger and better than before, but also that their stay in Egypt elevated Egypt itself. Imagine if inmates felt that their stay in prison was a mission to make prisons better places and to improve the lives of their fellow inmates? What might a sense of a higher purpose do for a dispirited man or women, whose lack of purpose played a large part in the crime they’re now paying for? Doubtless, assisting the prisoners in discovering a healthy sense of identity and purpose would go a long way in making their stay behind bars a productive and constructive one, leading to a vastly higher chance of their returning to society as self-respecting members, contributing to the welfare of those around them. Then, if inmates are motivated and empowered to penitence, prisons will have earned their title of “penitentiaries.”

All that just by using people’s names? This is a simple and powerful lesson from the Torah, one that we who work with inmates ought to take to heart and, more importantly, take to work. PJC

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director of The Aleph Institute — North East Region. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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