Sefer Shemot can be translated, â€œThe Book of Names.â€ Having begun with remarks on the strange and interesting flattening of Shifra and Puah into Yocheved and Miriam, I would like to reflect a bit more on the way names are deployed in this Parshah.
Mosheâ€™s name, in contrast to that of his sister and mother does not change. This is considered noteworthy by the rabbis. How could it be that the daughter of Pharaoh gave him the only name he would ever use? â€œFor from the water I drew him out (Meshitihu),â€ she says in Chapter 2:11, and this name sticks with him. The rabbis are distressed by the idea of the daughter of Pharaoh naming Moshe for two reasons: How did she come to know Hebrew? Why didnâ€™t his own mother name him?
Furthermore, if one were to argue that different facets of oneâ€™s identity should lead to different Biblical names, as Rashi argues in the case of Shifra and Puah, Yocheved and Miriam, one would assume that Moshe would have at least three different names. Moshe, born into an Israelite family, raised by Egyptian royalty, leaves Egypt for Midian where he becomes a shepherd and marries the daughter of a Midianite high priest. Whereas Yochevedâ€™s and Miriamâ€™s versatility is emphasized in the rabbinic notion of their being identified in the Biblical text by many names, Mosheâ€™s singularity of name, the stubbornness of his given name, highlights this dynamic from a different perspective. In Mosheâ€™s case, the very continuity of his identity, despite his rebirth throughout the narrative, as a Jew, as an Egyptian, as a Midianite, is represented by the singularity of his name.
Pharaoh himself presents a different variation on this dynamic of names in Parshat Shemot. The Israelitesâ€™ trouble began when a â€œnew kingâ€ arose over Egypt in Chapter 1:8, â€œone who did not know Joseph.â€ Here we hear from Rashi about different ways of understanding the transformation in leadership. He cites an argument between Talmudic scholars Rav and Shmuel: Rav explains that a new king came to power, and Shmuel says the old king was still in power, but he made new laws, ones that were not so favorable to the Israelites. All this confusion could have been averted, if the Kingâ€™s actual name was mentioned in the text. But he remains unnamed.
In the immortal words of Zelda (in Marcia Falkâ€™s translation):