Lech Lecha: Remember Your Name
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
When Abram (later to be known as Abraham) is summoned to leave his father’s home and venture on to the land of Israel, he takes Sarai, his wife (later to be known as Sarah) with him, and Lot, his nephew, along with all of their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in the [town of] Charan” – which, according to Midrashic tradition, refers to the men and women that Abram and Sarai had (so to speak) converted to monotheism (Genesis 12:5).
The verse in question (Genesis 12:5) goes out of its way to present the name of Abram’s wife and the name of his nephew before stating their relationship to Abram – “Sarai, his wife, and Lot, the son of his brother” – names before status.
This order is important, for names are soon to be forgotten.
When our party arrive in the land of Israel, they find it ravaged by famine, and decide to seek temporary refuge in the land of Egypt. At this point, we find the following compact and troubling narrative (Genesis 12:11-17):
As [Abram] was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “Now I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. If the Egyptians see you, and think, “this is his wife,” they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, so that it will be good for me due to you, and my soul will live because of you.” When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was, Pharaoh’s ministers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace. And because of her, things were good for Abram; he had sheep, oxen, donkeys, servants and maid-servants, female donkeys, and camels. And God struck Pharaoh and his house with mighty plagues regarding the matter of Sarai, the wife of Abram.
וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ׃ וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ׃ אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ׃ וַיְהִ֕י כְּב֥וֹא אַבְרָ֖ם מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּרְא֤וּ הַמִּצְרִים֙ אֶת־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־יָפָ֥ה הִ֖וא מְאֹֽד׃ וַיִּרְא֤וּ אֹתָהּ֙ שָׂרֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה וַיְהַֽלְל֥וּ אֹתָ֖הּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃ וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּעֲבוּרָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר֙ וַחֲמֹרִ֔ים וַעֲבָדִים֙ וּשְׁפָחֹ֔ת וַאֲתֹנֹ֖ת וּגְמַלִּֽים׃ וַיְנַגַּ֨ע יְהוָ֧ה ׀ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם׃
Nachmanides, in a memorable passage of his commentary to the Torah, suggests that Abram sinned. He sinned by leaving the Promised Land in the face of a famine, having only just been commanded to go there. Moreover, he adds:
And you should know that our father Avraham committed a great sin unintentionally, in which he brought his righteous wife to stumble into transgression because of his fear of getting killed, and he should have trusted God to have saved him, his wife and all that was his, because God has power to help and to save.
Abram was using his wife as a human shield and putting her into harm’s way to save his skin.
On the other hand, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Torah, goes to great lengths – drawing on numerous earlier commentators – to defend Abram’s actions in this story, and to shift all blame for any wrongdoing onto Pharaoh and his courtiers.
I won’t adjudicate that debate. My focus lies elsewhere. My focus is this: the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of Sarai’s name.
As I’ve already noted, Sarai's name appears in verse 9 before she is described as Abram’s wife. Once again, in verse 11, at the beginning of our story, Abram speaks to “Sarai his wife” –name first, status second. But, this all changes once Abram notices that Sarai is attractive.
Presumably Abram already knew that Sarai was attractive. He had married her. But as soon as he looks at her through the eyes of contemporary society, and assesses her to be beautiful by those external standards, her name vanishes.
In verse 12, she is “you”, “this” and “his wife.” In verse 13, she is “you” and “my sister.” In verse 14, she is “the woman.” In verse 15, she is, once again, “the woman”, and in verse 16, she is “her”. This isn’t just a coincidence. The text is quite clearly going out of its way to remove Sarai’s name on purpose. It even plays a joke on the reader. Verse 15 talks about the ministers of Pharaoh. The word for ministers, “שרי”, is homographic with (i.e., spelled the same as) Sarai’s name in the Hebrew alphabet, “שרי” – so even when her name seems to be making an appearance, it isn’t.
It’s only when God intercedes, on Sarai’s behalf, that her name reappears, in verse 17. God sends plagues. He is moved into action by the “matter of Sarai”. God is moved to act because he remembers her name. Alone in this story, God doesn’t regard Sarai as an object.
And thus, a close reading of this text gives rise to a very contemporary sounding lesson; but the lesson is quite clearly there to be discovered by any careful reader.
The lesson is this: God doesn’t take kindly to the objectification of women; God doesn’t take kindly to the associated phenomenon of their being air-brushed out of history. When society acts to erase their names, God takes notice.
That’s the lesson to be drawn from a close reading of these Biblical verses. But the lesson takes on a new dimension when we layer into our reading a family of Midrashic motifs.
The Midrash notices that our compact story about Avram and Sarai is a microcosm of the story of the Jewish people's later bondage in Egypt, and their eventual exodus. In the words of the Midrash:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham our father: go and conquer the road before your children. You find that everything that’s written about Abraham is written about his descendants. Regarding Abraham it is written, “There was a famine in the land” (Genesis 12:10), and with Israel [i.e., Jacob and his family], it is written, “For there has been a famine in the land for two years” (Genesis 45:6). Regarding Abraham it is written, “Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there” (Genesis 12:10), and regarding Israel it is written, “Our ancestors went down to Egypt” (Numbers 20:15). Regarding Abraham, it is written, “to sojourn there” (Genesis 12:10), and regarding Israel it is written [as the Children of Israel tell Pharaoh], “we have come to sojourn in the land” (Genesis 47:4). Regarding Abraham it is written, “for the famine was heavy in the land of Caanan” (Genesis 12:10), and regarding Israel it is written, “and the famine was heavy in the land” (Genesis 43:1)… Regarding Abraham it is written “They will kill me and allow you to live” (Genesis 12:12), and regarding Israel it is written, “every boy that is born you should throw into the Nile [but let every girl live]” (Exodus 1:22)… Regarding Abraham [as he left Egypt] it is written, “Avram was very rich in cattle, [silver, and gold]” (Genesis 13:2), and regarding Israel it is written, “He led Israel out [of Egypt] with silver and gold” (Psalms 105:37)…
The parallels between Avram and Sarai's Egyptian misadventure, and the story of the Exodus, are too numerous to be a coincidence. Avram and Sarai descend to Egypt due to a heavy famine. Later, the Jewish people descend to Egypt (in the days of Joseph), due to another heavy famine. Whilst in Egypt, Sarai is terribly mistreated and rendered a prisoner in the house of Pharaoh. Likewise, whilst in Egypt, the Jewish people are rendered slaves. Avram is scared that the Egyptians will kill him, the male, and let Sarai, the female, live. In the later story, the midwives are commanded to throw the male babies to their deaths and to save only the female babies. Eventually, Avram and Sarai leave Egypt with greatly increased wealth. Likewise, God leads the Jewish people out of Egypt laden with treasure. The two stories run in tandem.
From these parallels, the Midrash wants to derive a lesson about the relationship between the forefathers of Israel, and their descendants. The forefathers somehow have to experience (in telescoped form) all of the trials and tribulations of their descendants. Conversely, the Jewish people - at any given point in time - are supposed to see a path through their own challenges in the narrative of their ancestors.
But whatever the message we're supposed to derive from the striking parallels between our two Egypt stories, one thing is clear: the Midrash has uncovered an unmistakable invitation issued by the words of the Bible itself to read these two stories in tandem: the story of Avram and Sarai's sojourn in Egypt, and the later story of Jewish slavery in, and the miraculous exodus out of, Egypt.
If we take that invitation seriously, it follows that the lessons we can draw from one story will likely have something to say about the other story. In our close reading of Avram and Sarai's time in Egypt, we drew the following lesson: God doesn't take kindly to the erasure of names. Can we discover the same lesson lurking in the Biblical description of our slavery in, and salvation from, Egypt?
The book of Exodus is called, in Hebrew, ספר שמות, the Book of Names. This is because the book opens with a list of the names of the Jewish people who first went down to Egypt. But after those initial verses in the Book of Names, one of the most striking features of the next few verses is the ominous lack of names, like the ominous erasure of Sarai's name in the book of Genesis. In the space of a few verses, the Jewish people - at least in the eyes of the Egyptians - go from being a small tribe of 70 families, into a "swarming" mass of humanity - but there are no names (Exodus 1:7).
וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃ And the Israelites were fertile and swarmed; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them
Indeed, names don't reappear in the narrative until the first act of rebellion; the first moment in which two Jewish victims of Egyptian brutality stand up to their oppressors. When two Hebrew midwives refuse to obey Pharaoh's genocidal orders, the Bible records their names: Shifra and Puah (Exodus 1:15).
To the Egyptians, the Jews have become a swarming nameless mass. As far as they're concerned, the Jews can be objectified, commodified and transformed into chattel.
But, read in light of Genesis 12, we know that God doesn't forget the individuality; he doesn't forget the names; he doesn't forget the humanity of those who others objectify; of those whose names are erased. Later in the Exodus story, we're told (Exodus 2:24):
וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
But we know to read this story through the lens of Genesis 12, and so we know that God didn't just remember his covenant with our ancestors; he also remembered the name of each and every victim of injustice; he remembered the name of every individual whose identity the Egyptians had sought to erase.
The Torah makes it clear that the names of the Jews in Egypt, like the name of Sarai in Pharaoh's palace, were under threat. And yet, the Midrash tells us that the Jews were saved from slavery, partially in virtue of the fact that they held onto their identity. This Midrashic tradition comes in two slightly different formulations. In Leviticus Rabba, we're told:
Because of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt:  They didn’t change their names,  [they didn't change] their language,  they didn’t talk badly of one another, and  none of them was promiscuous.
In Midrash Lekach Tov, by constrast, we're told:
The Israelites were distinct [in Egypt], in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians.
In the latter Midrash, all of the praise has to do with the preservation of a distinct national identity. The Jews continued to speak Hebrew. They continued to wear distinctively Jewish clothes, and to eat distinctively Jewish food. If we read the first Midrash through the lens of the second Midrash, then we should assume that they gave their children distinctively Jewish sounding names. But, if that's true, then it should come as something of a surprise to us that our salvation eventually came via the hands of a man named Moses; a man whose Egyptian name was given to him by his Egyptian foster mother (Exodus 2:10).
But perhaps these two Midrashic sources have a slightly different conception of what a name is and why it's important. For the latter Midrash, a name is a sound, and that sound is a cultural artifact.
If your name sounds Jewish, then it plays a role in the creation of a national identity. But the former Midrash doesn't necessarily care what your name sounds like - it could sound Jewish, or it could sound Egyptian, like Moses' name. What matters is that you don't allow your situation to change your name. Why? Because a name isn't just a distinctive sound, or a cultural artifact. Primarily, a name is a linguistic device for pointing to a person's essence.
Every sentence I could ever utter about you would try to describe you in one way or another, and each description could only ever be partial at best. In a sense, to describe you is to objectify you because it is to put you in a box; it is to pigeon-hole you. But to name you is simply to point to you - to point to the you that exists behind any description, to point to your essence. As the philosopher, Ruth Barcan Marcus put it: names do not describe, they tag.
That the Jews didn't change their names doesn't have to mean that they only ever used Hebrew sounding names. It means that, despite the best efforts of their Egyptian slave-masters, the Jews continued to see themselves as people.
Their "owners" tried to erase their names; i.e., to erase their humanity, their personality, their subjectivity; to turn them into objects. But the Jews, at least in their own self-image, refused to have their names erased. They continued to view themselves as people. They continued to hold on to that indescribable something that name tags onto; they refused to change their names.
This teaching about the Exodus story can shine a light back onto our Parsha, and its story about Sarai. Why did God remember Sarai's name? Perhaps he remembered her name because she refused to view herself as an object; despite the best efforts of others to strip her of her humanity, and render her an object, she continued to hold onto her humanity, again - to that indescribable something that a name picks out; like her descendants in her wake, she refused to change her name.
God doesn’t take kindly to the objectification of human beings. When a society acts to erase the names of the marginalized, God takes notice. But perhaps he takes notice, most of all, when people refuse to view themselves through the reductive lens of their oppressors; God takes notice when a person refuses to be stripped of a name; and he calls upon the oppressed to recognize their own humanity, despite the crippling weight of their oppression, in light of the fact that we were all created in the image of God.