Names and Human Dignity



Rabbi Benjamin David



This Dvar Torah highlights the important connection between names in the book of Shmot and the value of human dignity for all people.


 As the New Year begins each one of us feels this tremendous sense of possibility.  I know I do.  This year, we begin the Book of Exodus during the very first week of 2010.  This should only help reinforce our feelings of hope.  Indeed, Exodus, in so many ways, is a book about hope.  Moses and the Jews leave behind the tyranny of Pharaoh and set out on a new path, one of justice and community, meaning and fulfillment.  

You may know that the Book of Exodus has a Hebrew name, Shemot, which doesn’t mean Exodus.  It actually means Names.  This is understandable in that it is a book largely about names: the names of those who first come down to Egypt, the names of those who endure the harsh life of slavery in Egypt, the names of those who eventually lead us out of Egypt, toward the Promised Land, through all of those valleys of uncertainty and adversity. 

You know the names.  There was Jacob and Joseph.  There was Moses of course and Miriam and Nachshon and eventually Joshua and all of their children and all of their children.

When it gives us these lists of names, the Book reminds us that, perhaps greater than the larger story, are the individual stories.  These human hearts and personal hopes. 

That’s such a Jewish idea.  We each have a name.  Each one of us is unique.  There is something really good, truly sacred, about who you are and what your story is.

Judaism encourages us to see this in ourselves and to see this in others, this God given dignity.  Actually the Talmud teaches that upholding the dignity of another human being is such a mitzvah that it supersedes all other commandments in the Torah. 

We learn this in a section of the Talmud devoted to Brachot, blessings, a volume that reminds us of the fact that blessings do not necessarily fall from the sky; blessings are created more often not by our own hands, when we bring blessing into the lives of others.  

When we visit the Soup Kitchen with our seventh graders we are taking some of the blessings we experience as a community and we are placing them in the hands of others. 

When we visit the Garden of Eve for Gleanings we are picking fruit and vegetables, yes, and donating them to the needy, yes.  More than that we are placing our own fortune in the laps of others. 

The abstract, the homeless, the hungry, become real.  The nameless are named.   The downtrodden become dignified. 

Our movement has long supported social justice, equality on every front, racial equality, gender equality, marriage equality, and done so with pride.  This kind of social action is in the most natural ways an extension of our own story.  I don’t have to tell you. 

Throughout time we have been locked out, locked up, barred from, tormented because of our religion.  We were strangers in the land of Egypt and we were made strangers in the land of Europe

Our mission now: To open wide the doors of inclusion, unlock the gates of compassion.  Marriage, for instance, is not simply about wearing a ring, perhaps sharing a name, a shared address.  It’s not just about a ceremony.  It’s not just about true love and commitment.

It is about those things, but marriage, how easy it is for us to forget, is also about legal status, inheritance, medical decision making.  It is about parenting rights and social security and health coverage.  It is about over 1100 rights denied because of who you are.  It is about people whose names would be wiped out, there sense of self, sense of happiness, sense of dignity, wiped out by a wave of close mindedness and fear.  It is about humanity.  And it is about time.  

Abraham Lincoln said: Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.  He stood tall over a nation divided and he, like an Abraham before him, stepped with courage in the direction of morality and equality.

To connect this to the Book of Exodus, we are helping others to the dignity they deserve as sacred beings.  This year, as we mark Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, take a moment to think about how you might help in this fight for equality.  Visit or to learn about what you can do. 

As a new year begins I know we are thinking about how each of us will make the most of our name.  How will we inspire others?  I believe we can link our names to the names of those trailblazers who came before us, from Abraham to Abraham, Moses to MLK, Joshua to JFK, those leaders who were brave, who were ready to choose the good.

May we all go from strength to strength, lighting a path of righteousness and justice for future generations of names.  And may this New Year be one of health and happiness for us all.  Amen.

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