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Parashat Shemot: Never Give Up Your Name

We read in Parashat Shemot of Pharaoh’s cruel command to the Jewish midwives, Shifra and Pu’a, that they should kill all newborn Jewish boys whom they help deliver. The midwives courageously defied this edict, for which they were rewarded by G-d.

A careful reading of the Torah’s account of Pharaoh’s command reveals a subtle textual difficulty. The Torah tells: "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives – one whose name was Shifra, and the other whose name was Pu’a. He said, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women…if it is a boy, you shall put him to death…" (1:15-16). Curiously, the Torah twice tells that Pharaoh spoke to the midwives: "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives… He said…" Why does the verb "Va’yomer" ("He said") appear twice in this account, if the king only made one statement to the midwives?

The Beneh Yissaschar (Rav Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov, d. 1841) offers a brilliant answer. He explains that Pharaoh knew full well that the midwives would refuse to kill the infants. After all, our Sages identify Shifra and Pu’a as none other than Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe Rabbenu. These were righteous women. They were sacred and pure. They were wholly incapable of murdering innocent newborn babies. Pharaoh realized this. He understood that his only hope to execute his plan, and have these midwives agree to kill the infants, was to change their names to Egyptian names. According to Kabbalistic tradition, the name given to a child at birth is a spark of prophecy, and embodies that soul’s unique potential. And thus as long as Yocheved and Miriam remained true to their names, to their core essence, which was sacred and pure, there was no chance of them committing such a heinous act. Pharaoh therefore gave them Egyptian names – Shifra and Pu’a – in an effort to lead them to change their nature and essence, so they would be capable of carrying out his evil edict.

But the midwives refused. The Torah relates: "The midwives feared G-d, and they did not do as the king of Egypt told them; they had the children live" (1:17). The Beneh Yissaschar notes that the Torah here tells us two things: that the midwives "did not do as the king of Egypt told them," and that "they had the children live." First, the midwives refused to allow their names to be changed. They refused to give up their name. They remained steadfastly loyal and committed to their true essence, to the spark of greatness within them. And therefore, as a result, "they had the children the live" – they were naturally incapable of fulfilling Pharaoh’s cruel edict.

We should never give up our "name," and never allow anybody else to take it away from us. We each have a vast amount of unique potential, the potential to be outstanding and accomplished. If people ever try to take this away, to make us into somebody else whom we aren’t supposed to be, we must refuse, and remain determined to actualize our unique potential to its very fullest and be the great people that we are capable of being, and that we are supposed to be.

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