In general, each of the Five Books of Moses and all the weekly Torah portions read in the synagogue are named after the first significant word of the book. For example, Shemot (Names in English) is the first important word in the first sentence of the Book of Exodus.
“These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt. (Exodus CH 1:V 1) Eleh Shemot bnai Yisrael…
Despite this simple explanation, many have sought to interpret the significance of the specific appellation. Rabbi Shipell of Lockdown Univerity shared this one recently.*1
Some in the Book of Exodus are named, but many more are referred to anonymously.
A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son.” (Exodus ch 2 v 1-2)
Although many are referred to anonymously, their mission is no less significant. If they had not each performed their specific tasks, as our Passover Haggadah text states, “we, and our children, and our children’s children would still be slaves in Egypt.”
Among the first persons named explicitly in the text are the Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews, Shifra and Puah. These two women’s acts may be the world’s first recorded historical narrative of civil disobedience.
Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Egyptian midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.” (Exodus 1:17-21)
But the midwives did not follow the Pharoh’s demands.
The midwives, however, feared God, so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said, “Why have you done this thing that you have enabled the boys to live?”
Another character who disobeyed the Pharoh’s immoral decrees was the Pharoh’s daughter.
Pharaoh and the Midwives, James Tissot c. 1900
Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant, and she took it. She opened it, and she saw him, the child, and behold, he was a weeping lad, and she had compassion on him, and she said, “This is one of the children of the Hebrews.” (Exodus Ch 2 v 5-6)
This is the origin story of how Moses was saved from death and named and adopted by the Egyptian princess. Interestingly, Phaproh’s daughter is not named here, but she is the one who called the baby Moses, and this is the name by which he is known to this day!
She named him Moses, and she said, “For I drew him from the water” (min hamayim mishitihu). (Exodus Ch 2 v 10)
Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the Nile (1886 painting by Edwin Long)
Modern Day Heros
It is now seventy-eight years since the defeat of the Nazis in WWll, and every day I learn about many hitherto anonymous people who were so significant to achieving that victory, some of them Jewish, many of them not.
One of these liberators I recently learned about is the remarkable Portuguese-born double agent Juan Pujol García, who single-handedly decided in the early 1930s that Hitler had to be defeated. He managed to avoid conscription to Franco’s fascist army but was determined to pursue his goal of defeating Hitler and his forces. So he decided to pass himself off as a devoted Nazi in Spain. He began to send reports to Germany based on available information. He was so convincing that the Nazis enlisted him to go to Britain to enlist other double agents. Once in England, he ingeniously created a fictitious non-existent network of English double agents complete with code names and reports throughout the war. The English decoders of Nazi communications discovered what he was doing and then enlisted him formally to work for the Engish spy network, MI-6.
As MI-6 called him, Agent Garbo succeeded in deceiving the German high command several times in the allies’ favour. With the covert help of MI-6, he created a field of realistic-looking, blown-up balloon tanks and rows of planes set to go, which were photographed and sent to the German High Command. With these pictures, Agent Garbo convinced the German High Command that the invasion would be at Calais, not Normandy. He is genuinely one of the spies about whom it could be said if not for him, the war may have gone very differently. He was successful in his mission and lived to tell the tale and write his memoir, Operation GARBO: the personal story of the most successful double agent of World War II, on Jan. 1, 1985, by Juan Pujol & Nigel West.
Juan Pujol García as a conscript, 1931
Thousands of others like Juan Pujol García are only now being discoverethatnd children took it upon themselves not to for him do the right thing.
Another hero I discovered as I watched the recent movie, Simone, Woman of the Century, is Simone Veil.
Simone Veil in Deauville, May 31, 1988.
The story of Veil’s life is seen from her joyful upbringing in a secular Jewish family to her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz, the day she received her high school diploma and her post-war accomplishments: – marrying and raising a family, acquiring a French law degree and serving in the French government and managing to alleviate the plight of prisoners of war, chronic drug users, achieving legal abortion rights in a Catholic country, and becoming the first president of the European Parliament, the EU, to finally avoid the wars that have torn Europe apart for hundreds of years.
I have often considered the line Marc Antony spoke in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar.
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
It seems to me that it is just the opposite, “the good that men do lives on and remains with us for all generations to record and recall.”
*1 Rabbi Shipell of Lockdown University gives a weekly seminar on the Torah portion of the week on Lockdown Univerity. To subscribe, contact Lockdown University Staff at email@example.com.