The Book of Names

I spent much of my childhood dreaming up names for my future children. On Shabbat afternoons I would sit on the floor perusing our heavy World Book Dictionary in search of beautiful words. Afflicted with an overly poetic sensibility, I didn’t care much for the meanings of these words – I privileged sound over sense, which is how I came up with names like “Parsimonious Avarice the Evanescent.” I loved the seductive mellifluousness of the soft s’s, and didn’t mind that the name I had chosen for my firstborn in fact meant “Stingy Greed the Fleeting.” Her siblings would be known as Chevrolet Charlotta, Chaperon Cliché, and Azalea Rendezvous, names that were surely influenced by my reading of Anne of Green Gables. If Anne could rename herself Cordelia and refer to Barry’s Pond as “The Lake of Shining Waters,” then surely I, too, could martial the English lexicon in service of my own phonetic aesthetic.

Now, twenty years later, I am perplexed to find myself at a loss for a name for the child currently kicking around in my belly. Instead of reading the World Book, I sit in shul and pause at every other word in the siddur, wondering if it could be my child’s name. “L’hodot l’hallel l’shabeach l’faer” – Hodaya? Hallel? Shevach? Pe’er? Occasionally I also look in the parsha, though not this week, lest my child be afflicted with a name like Se’et or Sapachat or Baheret. I think about the names of my friends’ children, and the grandparents we might want to name after, and the names of the literary characters I love. But thus far, I have not had any brainstorms.

Perhaps this focus on names is an attempt to intellectualize my pregnancy, which has been the most intense experience of embodiment I could possibly imagine. If I concentrate on the name of the baby, I can take a break from thinking about the extra thirty pounds weighing me down and preventing me from leaping out of bed in the morning. I might actually delude myself into thinking that I can go for a morning jog, forgetting the intense pressure on my pelvis and the soreness in my upper thighs each time I try to take a long stride. I might even succeed in distracting myself from the terrifying awareness that the head of my baby needs to be able to fit through my own body and make its way into the world, a prospect that makes me tremble in fear of the pain that lies ahead.

The contrast between potential baby names and the pain of physical embodiment brings me to the beginning of Sefer Shmot, the book whose narrative we will recount next week at the Pesach seder. These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob. The book opens with the names of Jacob’s sons, who in turn had many more sons, in a process that surely involved great pain, since the midrash tells us that the Israelite women had six babies in their bellies at a time. The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased and reproduced and grew mightier very very much, and the land became filled with them. The language of the text, with its rapid succession of synonyms and its doubled “very very,” reproduces itself, replicating the embodied experience on the semantic plane. Suffering under their Egyptian taskmasters, the Israelites cry out (vayizaku), and shriek (va’yeanchu), and their moans (shavatam) and groans (naakatam) reach God’s ears in all their synonymous multiplicity.

Of course, while the Israelite men are laboring to build Pitom and Ramsees, their wives are laboring to bring forth their multiple births, who emerge so quickly from the womb that the midwives Shifra and Puah do not even have time to look at the birthstool and evaluate the sex(tuplets). Their moans and groans of childbirth blend with the moans and groans of their husbands in the fields, until God can ignore them no longer. I have taken note of you, says God to Moses, invoking the same language (פקד) used to describe the impregnation of Sarah: And God took note of Sarah… And Sarah conceived and bore a son. God takes note of the Israelites, causing them to reproduce en masse; but at the same time, God hears their cries and delivers the people from the narrow birth canal of Egypt. Perhaps this is the rationale behind the very first commandment given after the exodus:

That very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop. The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, “Consecrate to Me every first-born, man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is mine. And Moses said to the people: Remember this day, on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand.

God delivered His firstborn son Israel from the womb, and immediately afterwards, we are commanded to consecrate our firstborns to God. When we experience the convulsions of childbirth, which I’m told are as cataclysmic as the splitting of the sea, we must recognize the divine hand that guides each firstborn through the narrow womb never before stretched by a child. We must trust that our moans and groans and cries and shrieks are reaching up to the throne of the One who is responsible for the creation of all new life, the One who takes note and delivers, and the One whose name is the ultimate mystery: I will be what I will be. And so this is what I have decided to tell myself as I puzzle over lists of names in an attempt to stave off my panic about childbirth: I will trust in God, and, with God’s help, it will be what it will be.

One thought on “The Book of Names

  1. Simona says:

    I can't wait till you give birth and write about motherhood! I'd be curious to know where you think Judaism comes down on attachment parenting vs. putting babies on a schedule.

    In my opinion childbirth hurts but is not nearly as great a shock to the system as the whole middle-of-the-night waking and sleep deprivation.


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