Imagine for a moment that you were blessed with the birth of a son. For the first eight days of his life he was referred to as “son,” or simply “him.” Finally, you are standing near the Bimah at his Brit Milah. You and your family anxiously wait for the precious moment when he will finally be given a Jewish name. The moment arrives and the Mohel calls out, “VeYikarei Shemo BeYisrael…” The name is imbued with deep meaning. Perhaps you chose that particular name for the name’s meaning and the ideals it represents, or to carry on the legacy imparted by a deceased family member. A few months later, your son is playing by the pond when he slips and falls. Your son’s precious life is in grave danger. Your non-Jewish babysitter extends herself, reaches into the pond, and miraculously saves your son. From that point forward she refers to your son as “Pully” or “Savey.” Would you continue calling him the meaningful Jewish name given to him at his Brit Milah by his Jewish parents, or the one coined by his gentile babysitter?
When Bityah, the daughter of Par’oh, defies her father’s edict and removes a young Jewish boy from the Nile, she brings him home to the palace, raises him, and names him Moshe. The Torah states (Shemot 2:10), “The boy grew up and she (Yocheved) brought him to the daughter of Par’oh, and he was a son to her. She called him Moshe, as she said, ‘For I drew him from the water.’”
Moshe is three months old (2:2) when he is placed in the water. Presumably, his parents have already named him, either at his Brit Milah or at his Hatafat Dam Brit (a ceremony performed on one who is born circumcised, which the Gemara (Sotah 12a) suggests Moshe was).
The Gemara (ibid.) records a dispute regarding Moshe’s actual name. While one opinion states that his name is “Tov,” meaning good, the other opinion states that his name is “Tuvyah,” meaning the good of Hashem. Elsewhere (Megilah 13a and BeResihit Rabbah), our sages list many different names of Moshe, each one describing or attesting to a certain aspect of his greatness. For example, one of the numerous names is “Yered,” because the Man falls in his lifetime; another is “Chaveir”, because Moshe connects Bnei Yisrael to Hashem.
These names are appropriate and have meaningful backgrounds. Ultimately, though, the Torah adopts the name that Bat Par’oh chooses for Moshe, rather than the name given to him by Amram, his Jewish father, who is considered the Gadol HaDor (Sotah 12a). This is a glaring difficulty. In fact, HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself calls out to Moshe with the name Moshe. As we see this week (Shemot 3:4), “Hashem saw that he turned aside to see; and God called out to him from amid the bush and said, ‘Moshe, Moshe,’ and he replied, ‘Here I am.’” Why does Hashem refer to Moshe with the name given to him by Bat Par’oh and not the one given to him by his own father?
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the fact that Moshe is saved and pulled out of the water is quite miraculous. As it is done by the daughter of the very person who makes the decree to kill the Jewish babies, the miracle is doubly shocking. To commemorate this miracle for eternity, Hashem decides to keep this name that will serve as a constant reminder of the miracle.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:26) offers an alternative explanation. The Midrash writes that we learn from this entire episode the reward given to those who perform acts of kindness. As is evident from the Gemara, Moshe has many names, yet the Torah and Hashem utilize only the name Moshe, which is given by Bityah.
The Midrash is pointing out the greatness of our obligation to express our Hakarat HaTov, gratitude, to others. Hashem pushes aside the Jewish name chosen by Amram, the Gadol HaDor, for a name given by an Egyptian woman. Hashem wants to teach us a powerful lesson. Sometimes, the attribute of HaKarat HaTov requires that we suppress our own interests and desires to be able to say “thank you” or act in accordance with our deep senses of gratefulness.
Allow me to close with a powerful story. Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the great Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Chaim Berlin, used to conduct his Pesach Seder in a very serious mood. He treated it as a Divine Service, and he acted with no levity or lightheadedness whatsoever. The atmosphere was like Yom Kippur. One year, he had a guest who was somewhat of a jokester. He joked around and he treated Pesach more like Purim than Yom HaKipurim. Rav Shlomo Freifeld, a student of Rav Hutner, said that something had to be done about this fellow. He asked Rav Hutner for permission to throw the fellow out of the house. Rav Hutner said, "No. This young man is a nephew of the Alter from Slabodka. If he wants to he can dance on the table. Don't touch him!" Rav Hutner, in his youth, had been a student of the Alter from Slabodka and was showing his gratitude to the Alter for having taught him.
Very often, we have complaints. We are upset at events that take place in Shul, at school, or at the local restaurant. We become angry at neighbors, friends, and family members. If we take the message of the name Moshe, the message of suppressing our own interests to adequately sense and, more importantly, express our HaKarat HaTov to individuals and institutions, how much better off will we all be!