Open a Jewish Encyclopedia and you will find many individuals, over the course of Jewish history, who are called Moshe. Look more carefully, and you will see that apart from the first Moshe or Moses, the name doesn’t occur again for more than two thousand years. It seems that for a long time, Jews were reluctant to call another person by the name of our greatest leader and saviour.
So what are the origins of this name? According to this week’s parasha, Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby she rescues from the Nile as Moshe, Ki Min HaMayim Meshitihu “for I drew him up out of the water.”
But what is his original name? He was three months old when he was placed in the basket in the river. According to the Talmud (Megilla 13a) Moses was given ten different names by members of his family, corresponding to the relationships he had with them. These include names like Tovia (the good one), Yekutiel (my hope in G-d), and Shemayah (G-d will hear.) It is striking, though, that the name that stuck – and the name that G-d uses in the Torah – is the name that was given to him by an Egyptian princess. The Midrash points out that nothing equals the merit of a good deed. She acted out of a sense of goodness and compassion without a thought to the risks of disobeying her father’s decree.
Many commentaries ask: If Moshe was so called because he was drawn from the water, would it not have been more appropriate to call him Mashui, “he is drawn [from the water]” rather than Moshe, which means “he draws out.”?
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550) explains that in naming Moshe, the daughter of Pharaoh already had his destiny in mind. “The reason why I call him this is so that in turn he should rescue others.”
It is remarkable that Moshe began his life with a helping hand from a princess of a nation that was persecuting his people. Throughout his life, Moshe lived up to his name. He rescued the Hebrew who was being beaten by the Egyptian. He rescued the daughters of Jethro. He drew his people out of Egypt. He brought them to Mt Sinai to receive the Torah and led them to the brink of the Promised Land.
For centuries, Jews hesitated to call another by a name that implied such a responsibility. Although the name has now come into common use, the mission it represents applies to us all. How much assistance can we be to others? Can we extend a helping hand that could set someone on their path in life?