Parashat Shemot 5777

Cantor Gershon Silins, 20 January 2017

This year, our “Thoughts for the Week” are based on the portion we read at our b’nei mitzvah. Mine was Shemot, “Names,” the first portion in the book of Exodus. It begins, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household…” and continues with the names of the sons of Jacob. As the story of Exodus begins, all of Jacob’s sons have died. Our sages ask why their names are given here. Sforno says that the reason is that each one of them possessed sufficient individuality to give meaning to his name. The brothers all were important characters in the Genesis story, and they have inspired generations of Jewish families to name their children after them.

Buried a bit deeper in the portion is another name, someone not at all prominent in the story, and after whom very few families (Jewish or otherwise) have named their children: Moses’s son, whom he named Gershom, which means “stranger there,” for he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”

The rabbi of my childhood, Rabbi Herman Schaalman, noticed that this variant of my given name was in the portion that I read, and he spoke about it at my bar mitzvah. Rabbi Schaalman, incidentally, turned 100 in 2016, and continues, long past his retirement, to serve the Reform congregation in Chicago that my family attended.

Many biblical names serve to describe the character or foretell the fate of the person so named, and in many cases, people begin with one name and then are given another that more fully delineates their character or destiny. Such was the case with me. In 1950’s America, it was unusual to give children noticeably Jewish names, which were saved for private family events. The names used in public generally were standard American ones. I was supposed to have had one of those names as well, but my mother didn’t like my “American” name, and when I was a few days old, my parents changed it to Gershon. So, unlike most of my contemporaries, I grew up with an identifiably Jewish first name. During those years when young people seek an identity in the larger world, my name served as a kind of anchor – no matter where I was in the larger secular world, I was bonded to the specificity of Jewish identity as well. Ultimately, that connection, combined with my love of singing, brought me into synagogue music, and then to the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College in New York, and to ordination as a cantor in the American Reform movement.

As someone who didn’t move away from the city of my birth until I was 30, one might have wondered how predictive my name – “stranger there” – would be. I never imagined that I would live in any other country, but my name’s destiny came true when I moved away from the United States, first to Canada and then to the United Kingdom. “I was a stranger in a foreign land,” said Moses when he named his son Gershom. Today, over half a century after my bar mitzvah, I have indeed fulfilled both the predictions of my given name (or at least the version of it that appears in my bar mitzvah portion) – living in a “foreign” land (it no longer seems foreign to me, except when I’m driving) and living a life in the community of Liberal Judaism.

Our sages noticed something else in the passage with which we began. Although it is translated, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob,” the Hebrew verb is not in the past tense, but rather the participle, or present continuous, tense. Sh’mot Rabbah asks, why the present? After all, Joseph’s brothers had been in Egypt long before the death of Joseph. Sh’mot Rabbah says that the reason is that the brothers didn’t have to pay taxes until their brother Joseph died, and when he did, it was as if they were just arriving in Egypt. For me, the message in saying of Joseph’s brothers that they “are coming” rather than that they “came” is that the past is always with us, as it is for me these many years after my bar mitzvah. The American novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I’m inclined to agree with him.

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