This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jason Strauss
When naming a new child, parents consider numerous factors. They may choose a name that belonged to an ancestor, that matches the name of someone they admire, because of the meaning of the name, or just for aesthetic purposes. In the Torah, babies are often given names that are meaningful to the parent, sometimes reflecting something happening in their lives and sometimes reflecting the nature of the child.
For example, the Torah implies that Cain’s name derives from his mother’s joint creation of a new man together with Hashem (Genesis 4:1). Eve later names Seth because of his role a replacement for the son(s) that Eve lost due to Cain’s murder of Abel (Genesis 4:25). Noah is so named because of his parents’ hope that he would ease their lives despite the cursed land (Genesis 5:29). Similar etiologies are provided by the Torah for the names of Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, all of Jacob’s sons, and even Moses.
Parshat Yitro similarly explains Moses’s intentions in naming his sons Gershom and Eliezer. But the placement of these naming explanations raises several questions. First of all, hadn’t the Torah mentioned the etiology of Gershom’s name previosuly, shortly before recording Moses’ encounter with the fiery bush that wasn’t being consumed? Second, the Torah usually gives the meaning behind a child’s name immediately preceding or immediately following theirbirth. Why is the explanation of Eliezer’s name recorded at least months, if not years, after his birth? Why does the Torah reserve informing us about Eliezer’s name until this moment, when Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children to join Israel at Mt. Sinai?
One potential answer to these questions can be given via another question. Gershom is named in response to Moses’ status as a stranger in Midian, as being away from his birthplace (Egypt) and without his people (Israel) (See Malbim). Eliezer, though, is named because of Moses’ escape from Pharaoh’s sword, which took place before he arrived in Midian. Why are the orders of their names reversed? Why didn’t Moses name his first son Eliezer, and his second son Gershom, so that the story told through their names would be chronological?
Several commentators, including Seforno, Bechor Shor, and Riva, suggest that Moses originally did not want to give his children names that would connect him to his escape from Egypt, lest word get back to Pharaoh and put his family in danger. Gershom, who was born before the burning bush, therefore has a name that does not clearly recall that episode. However, once G-d informs Moses that Pharaoh had died, he feels comfortable naming his son in light of his salvation from Pharaoh’s sword. Along the same lines, perhaps we can suggest that the Torah delays telling us Eliezer’s name because only now, after Pharaoh and his army have been defeated at the Red Sea and can never reach Moses and his family, is Eliezer’s name’s essence fully true.
Ramban takes a different approach to this question. He acknowledges that when Moses is confronted by an angel and is nearly killed, it appears as if the son who Zipporah circumcises is Gershom, the only child that had been mentioned until that point. In fact, the Mechilta suggests that Jethro only allowed Moses to marry Zipporah on the condition that he would not circumcise his first son, i.e. Gershom, and the angel was going to kill him as punishment for fulfilling that promise. But Ramban points out that another Midrash Aggadah states that it was Eliezer, not Gershom, who was circumcised on the road to Egypt. He surmises that because Eliezer was born and circumcised under those difficult circumstances, he was not given a name until after the splitting of the Red Sea, at which point the family was safe and Moses could truly say that G-d had saved him from Pharaoh’s sword. According to Ramban, the reason the Torah mentions Eliezer’s name now, rather than at his birth, is because he wasn’t named until he and his grandfather his father at Mt. Sinai.
Another justification for the delay of Eliezer’s naming until Parshat Yitro can be found in the Midrash Tanchuma. The midrash points out that the Torah uses an unusual phrasing to refer to Eliezer as Moses’ other son. Instead of referring to Gershom as the name of Moses’ and Zipporah’ first son (shem ha-echad) and Eliezer as the name of their second son (shem ha-sheni), the Torah designates them both as shem ha-echad. The simplest explanation, as Ibn Ezra notes, is that this simply means “the name of one is Gershom” and “the name of the other one is Eliezer.” Nonetheless, the Midrash understands the labeling of Eliezer as “ha-echad” to be a hint at additional meaning behind Eliezer’s name.
The midrash explains that when Moses ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai, he saw that G-d was quoting the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’s opinion that the calf whose neck is broken as part of the atonement ceremony for an unsolved murder (egla arufa) must be one year old while the red cow (para aduma) used to purify those impure from contact with the dead must be two years old. Moses protests that G-d is both the Creator and Owner of the world – why should He need to cite the opinion of human beings about His own laws? G-d responds, “One day there will be a righteous man named Eliezer who will be the first to engage in the laws of the red cow to render this ruling.” Moses then prays, “May it be Your will that he descend from me,” a request which G-d then swears will be fulfilled in the future.
Perhaps Tanchuma is implicitly explaining why Eliezer’s name appears in the context of Parshat Yitro; Moses only discovers the greatness of his son Eliezer’s descendant Rabbi Eliezer while on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah, which takes place in this parsha. Furthermore, Kli Yakar (Numbers 19:2) asks why Moses specifically asks, in the Midrash, to be the progenitor of Rabbi Eliezer because of his innovative study of egla arufa and para aduma – why not ask to be the ancestor of a Tanna focused on a different mitzvah? He answers that Moses wanted to be associated with those commandments because of the personal courage and sacrifice he displayed in his defense of Israel after their sin with the Golden Calf. The para aduma is an atonement for the sin of idolatry committed with the Golden Calf and the egla arufa is an atonement for the sin of murder, which the rabbis say Israel perpetrated in their murder of Hur. Since the sin of the Golden Calf took place at Mt. Sinai, perhaps it is only appropriate that Moses’s descendant is afforded the name Eliezer at Mt. Sinai as a reference to Moses role in saving the Jewish People from G-d’s wrath.
The Talmud (BT Brachot 7a) also asserts that despite Moses’s rejection of G-d’s plan to wipe out Israel in response to the Golden Calf and build a new nation from Moses’s children, G-d’s blessing to Moses that his descendants would become many was still fulfilled. The verse (I Chronicles 23:17) states that Eliezer’s son Rehabiah’s children “were very numerous,” which the Talmud interprets to mean more than 600,000. Ha’amek Davar suggests that this could be another reason why Eliezer is referred to as “shem ha-echad” despite being the second son; he is the main progenitor of Moses’s many descendants. Perhaps this, too, can explain why Eliezer’s name is only mentioned at Mt. Sinai, where this promise about Moses’s many descendants would be made in response to the Sin of the Golden Calf.
Rabbi Jason Strauss (SBM 2012-2014) is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and teaches Judaic Studies at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.