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Calling People Names - From Tzvi Moshe Kantor

In this week’s Parsha, we fully enter the Galus. On this level, Egypt is the prototypical exile: a frame of reference for other national and personal exiles throughout history. Hopefully, we will discover the essence of what it means to descend into a difficult situation and what we can do to come out on top.

The Passuk says, “V’Eleh Shemos Bnei Yisrael HaBaim Mitzraima Eis Yaakov Ish U’Beiso Bau.” ‘And these are the names of Bnei Yisrael who came to Egypt with Yaakov, each man with his household.’ There are a few issues in this Passuk that we will raise and then hopefully answer them all through one fundamental idea.

The first question is in the words of the Passuk itself: Why does the Passuk contain both the names Yaakov and Yisrael? We know that the names carry different connotations, so what is the Passuk trying to tell us by bringing both?

There are two other general questions that we also need to address. First of all, if our Passuk is dealing with Inyenei Galus, issues pertaining to exile, then why is the title ‘Shemos,’ ‘Names’?

On a second very general level, we need to analyze what exile is. What is its purpose? Seemingly it is reciprocation for sins: we do bad stuff and then Hashem punishes us, right? But it can’t be that simple. If it is only that, then we are left with a very fundamental problem with a Midrash in Bereishis Rabba. The Passuk says “V’Ha’Aretz Haysa Tohu VaVohu V’Chosech Al Pinei Tihom” ‘And the land was in chaos and empty, and darkness upon the surface of the depths.’ The Midrash says that each of these descriptions parallels an exile that the Jews will experience. ‘Chaos’ is Babylonia. ‘Empty’ is Persia. ‘Darkness’ is a reference to Greece, and ‘The Depths’ is talking about Rome. If exile is only a response to sin, then how can the exiles be programmed into the creation story before we could even commit the Aveiros needed to bring them on? It’s not fair!

The Nesivos Shalom explains that to think that Galus is merely a response that comes about as a result of sins is a fundamental mistake. Galus is an opportunity. It gives us the ability to undergo purification. To enter a difficult situation and come out better from it is much better than to just stay okay. And this is built into the fabric of creation from the start! It is true that we sin and that this causes punishments to come our way, but the ability to overcome all sorts of exiles and tests (personified by the various exiles) is something that we, on both the personal level and as a people, have engrained within us, and we need to go through these refinements to come our better on the other side. Every different Galus calls upon the Jews to tap into a new Avodah, a new style of service of Hashem. And, by going through these various stages of development, we are able to reach the end of the Passuk we quoted above from Bereishis, “V’Ruach Elokim Mirachefes Al Pinei HaMayim” ‘And the spirit of Hashem was hovering over the surface of the waters.’ The Midrash over there continues that “Zeh Rucho Shel Mashiach” this is the ‘Spirit of Mashiach’ Meaning that in the same way that going into exile is built into the fabric of reality - so is us defeating it and coming out on top of it.

To answer our other questions, (Why is our Parsha called ‘Names’? And why are both Yaakov and Yisrael mentioned in the Passuk?) we need to ask another question: What is a name? In Emunas Itecha, Rav Moshe Wolfson explains that a name is a definition of one’s personal Avodah. A name is an external title labeled onto one’s internal identity. Every person with his unique way of relating to his name has his own Avodah because no two people are living the exact same situation in this world. Each person has his own Tafkid, a specific task that he needs to accomplish, and only he, with his name, with his title, can accomplish that mission. Let’s take this a step further before we answer the second question.

The Sfas Emes points out a few nuances in the Passuk. “V’Eleh Shemos Bnei Yisrael HaBaim Mitzraima Eis Yaakov Ish U’Beiso Bau.” ‘And these are the names of Bnei Yisrael who came to Egypt with Yaakov, each man with his household.’ If you read the Passuk carefully it is only the names which went into the Galus, not people! “V’Eleh Shemos Bnei Yisrael HaBaim Mitzraima.” Another important nuance: While we translate Eis Yaakov to mean ‘With Yaakov’ it does not necessarily have to mean ‘with’; rather, Eis can mean ‘as.’ They seventy people that descended to Egypt, into the exile, Eis Yaakov, as Yaakov, deeply connected to what Yaakov is all about. And Yaakov personifies the ability to penetrate through all the exteriors and see the deep truth in everything. Throughout every exile, Yaakov is still connected to the end-goal of Rucho Shel Moshiach. This aspect never goes into Galus

What does this mean? Maybe we can explain that the name of our forefather, Yaakov, is a connection to the internal aspects of any given matter. Between Jews, Yaakov is Yaakov Avinu. We are part of a special club called Beis Yaakov, Kehilas Yaakov. Yaakov is what binds us together as a people; the way we relate to ourselves on the internal layer. Yisrael on the other hand is the relationship to the external world. This is what we put on the banners when we travel in the desert as Machaneh Yisrael. To the nations we call ourselves Am Yisrael. Yisrael is the way we as a group relate to the rest of the world. And this comes out in the Passuk beautifully! “V’Eleh Shemos Bnei Yisrael HaBaim Mitzraima” The children of Yisrael (the external layer) went into a new situation of Egypt. This part of the Jews went into exile. But “Eis Yaakov” the part of us where Yaakov remained Ish U’Beiso Bau, totally bound as a family proceeding to the end-goal. The ability to see what the real purpose of the world is never goes into exile.

Now we can answer all of our questions! Based on how we have explained the essence of a name and the essence of Galus,everything makes sense! Let’s crunch: a name is a definition of my Avodah, and the purpose of a Galus is to refine and purify the Jewish people on their way to Rucho Shel Moshiach, and Yisrael is the way relate to the outside world. With this in mind, it makes sense that the NAMES of YISRAEL went into Galus. But the binding factor of YAAKOV did not. The Jews needed to refine a new aspect of their Avodah, the way that they operate in the world – their names. The external layer of what a name is goes through the refinement of exile, but the manifestation of Yaakov penetrates right through!

Let’s explain what this means for me on the practical level. The fights of Olam HaZeh are endless. The way I serve Hashem in this world is never going to be able to remain static. I’m going to be constantly challenged. Just when I get comfortable, the world is going to send me a new Galus, a new curve-ball and I'm going to have to switch it up and find a new Derech of Avodas Hashem to deal with it. A renewed focus on a Mitzva. A fresh perspective. A new favorite piece of Tefila. The more I refresh, the better off I'll be. The aspect of me that is Yisrael is going to go through constant modification. Every situation demands something different of my name. But simultaneously an internal part of me is Yaakov. I know that everything I’m doing is channeled towards bringing me closer to my Father in Heaven, and no external situation can change that! My head is always in the right place irregardless of where my physical body is. I’m always connected to something bigger no matter what my surroundings may be. No matter where I am, as Yisrael I’m going to have to draw upon a new, refined type of Avodah, a new strength from within me… but if I also remain connected to my inner Yaakov, always focused on the end goal of closeness to Hashem, I’ll always be heading in the right direction. No situation will ever hold me back. If we can do this, we will B’Ezras Hashem move closer to the REDEMPTION!

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About me

  • I'm Rabbi Ally Ehrman
  • From Old City Jerusalem, Israel
  • I am a Rebbe in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh.
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