Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
– Marianne Williamson (Author and Activist)
Exodus, “The book of names” ironically seems to be intentionally ambiguous, with names of the main characters at the outset of the book. The verses seem deliberately vague. We learn that the Jewish people greatly multiplied, and a nameless man took a nameless woman and had a nameless child, that only later on we will discover is called Moses. Even the name Moses was not the name given to him by his parents but rather by the Egyptian princess who discovered him in a basket in the river.
The Torah points out that the mighty Egyptian empire felt threatened by the swelling of the population of the Hebrews. Yet here again it seems unclear and perhaps even the Egyptians were unclear as to what was the precise threat and concern, was it the Jews or the increased Jewish birthrate they felt threatened by?
The Egyptian strategy was to have cast into the Nile every male born Jewish child. The policy seems futile and nonsensical, one cannot effectively limit reproduction of a nation merely by throwing the male children into the Nile whilst keeping alive the female children what did the Egyptians hope to achieve.
This was something that even later tyrants found absurd as noted in Midrash Rabbah
Haman, himself the master of a planned final solution said, “Pharaoh must have been mad to say, “every boy to be born must be cast into the Nile, but every girl should be allowed to live!” Couldn’t he understand that the women would somehow find themselves a male and reproduce?
It seems obvious that for Pharaoh and the Egyptians they were not intent on a final solution or genocide against the Jewish people. The fear and concern were not of a people per sei but rather a people with an identity. A nameless people will become part of the melting pot of Egyptian society but a people with their own names and strong sense of identity and destiny posed a growing threat that needed to be dealt with. In fact, it was precisely maintaining their “names” that was one of the redeeming features of the Jewish people.
The Egyptians were absolutely correct in their analysis and concern that they could not afford to leave a people with a strong sense of their identity unchecked. Yet they were at the same time wrong in their analyses of where the danger lies. Egypt was a patriarchal society, and, on that basis, they feared everything from the Jewish men and nothing from the Jewish women. It was a fatal and fundamental flaw that would be their undoing. They became obsessed with eliminating every Jewish male and on the day when their astronomers believed the Jewish leader would be born, they even drowned the Egyptian male children. Yet Pharaoh had underestimated that the strength of the Jewish people lay not in the men but in their women. It was the Jewish midwives that refused to collaborate at great personal risk. It was Miriam in particular that as the prophetess offered a vision of hope and redemption and encouraged her parents despite the decree against the male children to reunite and eventually give birth to Moshe the future leader of our people. It was the women of valor that continued to propagate Egypt with Jewish children despite them facing bleak prospects for their future.
The Rabbis famously maintain, that it was in the merit of of the righteous women of that generation that the Israelites were redeemed. It was the Israelite women that strove mightily to continue to bring forth children regardless of the grueling servitude and despite Pharaoh’s decree that the male children be killed. God aided them in realizing their wish by miraculous means.
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf the Jewish people are without any true culture sense of ideal or defined spatial setting. Thus, the Jew lacks those qualities which define nationhood. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
The story of Jewish survival and eventual redemption has throughout our history been realized on the back of our people’s holding on to our faith and identity, in essence our name. The exile and subjugation and servitude started with the Egyptian exile but as we are acutely aware it did not end there and has continued almost unabated throughout our people’s history. From Pharaoh, to Bilaam to Haman and Achashvereus and finally to Stalin and Hitler all have tried to succeed where the others before them failed. To paraphrase the Haggadah in every generation they tried to kill us, but Hashem saved us from their hands. More often than not it has been the Jewish women that have been the unsung heroes in maintaining the Jewish family with faith and hope in the most challenging of circumstances.
On Sept. 18, 2008, Sofya Tomarkin a Jewish woman formerly from the Soviet Union, watched in awe as Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the highest honor, the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The former Soviet leader and Noble Prize winner was celebrated as a force responsible for ending the Cold War and was praised for the hope he gave to the millions hidden behind the Iron Curtain. To Jews and other faiths, Gorbachev had restored their religious freedoms enabling them to live a life of faith without fear of persecution. For Sofya witnessing this momentous occasion seemed surreal, only a few years earlier this moment would have seemed impossible.
As she left the event hall, to her surprise she saw Gorbachev walking with his security guards towards her on their way to the celebratory dinner. As he walked past her, she turned to him “Mr. Gorbachev,” she said, “I am a Russian-born Jew. We immigrated in 1989. I respect you and feel gratitude for the life I have today. Meeting you is a great honor. May I ask you for your autograph as a memory of this important day?”
Without a blink of an eye, he simply replied with a phrase that summarized this entire experience: Ваша жизнь мой автограф – “Your life is my autograph”. For Gorbachev it was clear that living a life as a Jew was the embodiment of his life’s work. Perhaps we can suggest that if we are able to live a life of meaning, identifying ourselves as Jews then we are G-d’s autograph, G-d’s name in this world.