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Friday, December 24, 2010


Dvar Torah For Parshat Shemot, 5771.

How significant are the differences between variant spellings of people’s English names? Let’s try a little experiment to determine this. If I spell Brian B R I A N and then I spell it B R Y A N, does the spelling difference make a difference? Now, let’s try another English name, Louis. If I spell it L O U I S, does this name differ in meaning from L E W I S? How about Billy? If I spell it B I L L Y, then spell it B I L L I E, is there a difference? Or, what about Barry? Is B A R R Y different from B A R R I E? In these last two examples, the variant spellings of Barry and Billy are significant only in terms of determining the gender of the person bearing the name, and only in written form. Just hearing the name Billy or Barry would not allow you to determine if the name belonged to a man or a woman unless the person bearing that name was being addressed in front of you. I would make the highly uninformed and speculative assumption that though English names are rooted in meaningful ideas based upon their Latin, Greek, or Germanic roots, variants on the spelling of those names do not normally have any real significance.

This is not necessarily the case in biblical Hebrew, which uses names consciously to predict the fates and establish the characteristics of its heroes. One example, not a great one, is Avram and Avraham. Apart from one Hebrew letter, we don’t think of these as two distinct names, but the Torah certainly does. The addition of the Hebrew letter Hey to Avram’s name by God completely changed him from Avram to Av Hamon Goyim, the father of many nations, as part of his covenant with God.

Another much less known example of this name phenomenon, one that the Torah itself does not spell out explicitly, is that of the names GershoM, spelled with a final MEM, and GershoN, spelled with a final NUN. We find both of these variant spellings in this morning’s Torah portion, Shmot, which by the way, means “names” and starts with the names of the people who moved to Egypt with Jacob. Looking in Exodus 2:25 (HEH 325), we find the following: “She (Moses’ wife, Zipporah) bore a son whom he named GershoM, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.’” GershoM is a compound of the Hebrew words, ger (stranger) and sham (there). Moses uses the birth of his first child as an opportunity to remember his (Moses’) precarious state as an exiled resident alien in the land of his wife’s family. Now let’s look at Exodus 6:16 (HEH 354): “These are the names of Levi’s sons by their lineage, GershoN, Kohath and Merari.” Of course, notice the spelling differences between the two, specifically the variant uses of final MEM and final NUN. I suspect that both of these names were originally mere variants with no significant difference, but over time, Jewish tradition came to read them as different. According to Halachah (Jewish law), when you write a get, a divorce document, if you write the name of the ex-husband as GershoN (final NUN) when his name is actually GershoM (final MEM), or vice versa, the get cannot be used and must be written again. Explaining this, the Torah commentator, Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein writes that GershoM refers to what the Torah had already written: Moses as a stranger in a foreign land. However, the name GershoN is derived from the Hebrew word, Gerushin, dismissal or divorce, which is based upon the Hebrew verb, garash, to chase away. The two names sound the same, but they derive from different roots with different meanings; thus they are not interchangeable for get writing purposes.

I would like to explore the difference between these two names, GershoM and GershoN a bit more closely with you. Though the Torah never explicitly tells us that GershoN the son of Levi was named to recall some traumatic experience of dismissal or divorce, we can readily imagine Levi, third son of Jacob, imputing such significance to his eldest son’s name. The Book of Genesis tells us that, with his brother Shimon, Levi murdered the residents of Shechem to avenge the rape of his sister, Dinah, but their leader. Upon his death bed, Jacob singled out the two brothers for particularly harsh condemnation, as the result of their actions. Gershon’s levitical descendants were charged with the task of transporting the covers of the portable sanctuary, the outermost (and some might say, least significant) parts of that structure, thus emphasizing symbolically how transient or “chased away” they might have been seen or felt themselves to be. Based upon an interesting polemic found in the Talmud, a much later Hasidic comment on the name GershoN relates it to the desirable and condemnable characteristics of a communal leader: a leader with great ancestral lineage who is not also well versed in Torah ( a bar avahan versus a bar uryan, according to BT Menahot 53a) is considered a GershoN, one who should be divorced from or chased away from leadership. Without the sobering and sanctifying discipline of Torah, lineage as a standard for leadership easily degenerates into ruthlessness born of a sense of inherent prestige and privilege. This certainly seems to be part of Levi’s problem: as Jacob’s son, he may well have believed that his lineage granted him license to react with violence, the horror and moral outrage of his sister’s victimization notwithstanding. Separated emotionally from his father, Levi may have named his first born son GershoN to reflect that sense of dismissal, divorce and estrangement, a kind of emotional exile.

Both names, seemingly unconnected in the story of the enslavement in Egypt, actually connect quite meaningfully. Moses’ son, GershoM, bore the memory of his father’s self imposed physical exile in a strange land, the result of his fear for his life at the hands of Pharaoh. Levi’s son, GershoN (Moses’ uncle) bore the memory of his father’s divorce like estrangement from his own father, Jacob. I suspect that neither was pleased about inheriting such darkly symbolic names or the legacies of so much alien residency brought about by their two fathers’ actions and wanderings. They were the dubious beneficiaries of family histories, choices, and migrations over which they had no control.

Let me suggest that the modern GershoNs and GershoMs are the children of illegal immigrants who populate our nation in the millions. A recent Washington Post article offers the following population statistics: by 2006, the number of foreign born children of illegal immigrants had leveled off at 1.5 million. By 2008, the number of children born in the United States to illegal immigrants had actually grown to 4 million. Though there are those who would like it repealed, federal law makes anyone born in the United States a legal citizen, even if his or her parents are not. The Dream Act, legislation recently defeated in the Senate just shy of five votes, would have provided legal citizenship for a limited category of young Americans who came to this country under the age of 16 with their parents illegally. It would have allowed them to apply for citizenship, especially for the purposes of enlisting in the armed forces or applying to college as long as they meet specific residency and legal requirements. Though I found it heartening that a majority of senators (including three Republicans) voted for the new law, it is quite sad that the requisite 60 votes to pass the bill was not reached. Opponents claim that the law would be abused by young illegals who would find ways around the age-at-immigration requirements, thus encouraging even more illegal immigration beyond the more than eleven million illegal immigrants residing here now. Given the byzantine bureaucracy that is the federal government, I doubt this would happen anytime soon; for all we know, the usual big government snafus that accompany all such new legislation would hold up most of these young people from ever seeing their status legalized anytime before the coming of the Messiah, so I am more inclined to believe that opposition to the bill was motivated more by nativist paranoia, a great deal of confusion about proper federal immigration policy, and plain old pandering to racism, most of it directed at Latinos who represent the largest body of illegal immigrants, as well as a growing political force to be reckoned with. Further, given the fact that the Obama administration is planning to deport an all time record high of 400,000 illegal immigrants this fiscal year, killing such legislation on the grounds that it is one more piece of liberalism that seeks to weaken American security is just nonsense. Consider the impassioned words of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, hardly a liberal state. She was one of the three Republican senators who broke ranks to support the bill:

“I support the goal of the Dream Act which is to enable children who were brought to the United States by their parents to earn citizenship through service in the armed forces or pursuit of higher education… I do not believe that children are to blame for the decision of their parents to enter or remain in the United States unlawfully. The reality is that many of these children regard America as the only country they ever knew. Some were not even told that they were unlawfully in the United States until it came time for them to apply for college. America should provide these young people with the opportunity to pursue the American dream. They have much to offer America if given the chance.”

I personally support tough immigration legislation that protects us from absorbing immigrants who do not have good reasons to be here, especially in this era of international terrorism against the United States and in this broken economy. I stop way short of the illegal, racist and capricious immigration policies of the State of Arizona, and I am also well aware of how much we Jews have benefitted from immigration to this country. Still, I believe firmly that we need real immigration reform that will monitor immigrants carefully, prevent them from being abused by sweatshop bosses and prostitution rings, protect jobs for American citizens, and limit legal immigration to those who are seeking genuine political asylum from persecution or who possess high level skills and education that can benefit American society. However, the kids who would have benefitted from the Dream Act are, like GershoM and GershoN of the Torah, mostly the hapless recipients of their parents’ decisions. (We would do well, of course, to remember that most of their parents came here illegally because they wanted a better life for those kids.) What do we benefit by denying them the simple chance to be legal citizens in the only country that they know or have ever known? Surely, we can do better at dealing with this aspect of the very serious problem of illegal immigration. Surely, if GershoM and GershoN showed up at our doors today, we should have a much better way of providing them with a legitimate chance to fulfill the American dream.

Shabbat shalom.

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