The final Pasuk in last week’s Parashah talks about Yosef’s death, and the first Pasuk in this week’s talks about the names of the Jewish people. The first Pasuk of Shemot states, “VeEileh Shemot Bnei Yisrael HaBa’im Mitzraymah,” “And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt” (Shemot 1:1). The Midrash tells us that originally the Torah was written without any special spaces in between the Parashiyot. This means that although last week’s Parashah, VaYechi, is the last Parashah in Sefer BeReishit, originally, it was placed right next to the first Pasuk in Shemot. The two Parashiyot are connected just as any other two juxtaposed Parashiyot are. Why, then, does the Torah mention the names of the children who went down to Egypt immediately following the story of Yosef’s death? What does Yosef dying have to do with these names - or more specifically, these people?
The Ba’al HaTurim teaches us that before Yosef died, he asked all of his brothers and their families not to change their names. Yosef made this request from personal experience, as his own name was changed to Tzafenat Panei’ach when Par’oh promoted him to viceroy. Just before Yosef’s death in BeReishit, he warns his brothers to forbid the Egyptians from changing their Hebrew names. The first Pasuk in Shemot tells us that the Jews listened to Yosef. The Pasuk states, “These are the names of the Jewish people ‘Baim Mitzraymah’” which means “these are their names as ‘they are coming to Mitzrayim,’” while it should have read “these are the names of Bnei Yisrael who came to Mitzrayim.” The Torah uses present tense to teach us that they still did not change their Hebrew names, even after many years in Mitzrayim.
Rav Reinitz asks on the Ba’al HaTurim that according to Ramban, Tzafenat Panei’ach is not an Egyptian name, but a Hebrew name. Following Yosef’s interpretation of the dreams, and the successful prediction of the famine, Par’oh wanted to change his name. Ramban states that Par’oh asked Yosef how to say “he who predicts the future” in Hebrew, to which Yosef responded, “Tzafenat Panei’ach.” This became Yosef’s commonly used name in Egypt. If Ramban is correct, and Yosef’s new name was a Hebrew name, why would Yosef instruct his brothers not to change their names?
The Sefat Emet teaches us that a name is what defines a person and his potential. LeHavdil, Chad Johnson changed his name to Chad Ochocinco, and Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. They did this to redefine who they were. This is the reason why Hashem gives every Malach a name that represents the angel’s mission. The same is true for us. We each are given a name by our parents, who use our name to define who we are and what we can become. Yosef was worried about letting the Egyptians define who his family was. Even though Yosef’s new name was in Hebrew, it was not the name his parents gave him. Par’oh attempted to redefine Yosef’s soul, and his potential. It was a step to try and distance Yosef from his Jewish parents.
We know that Yosef was especially sensitive about this because when he revealed himself to the brothers, the first thing he mentioned was “Ani Yosef.” His first words to his brothers are that he is Yosef - after many years of exile from his family’s homeland, he has remained unchanged. The Keli Yakar states that he was not only saying that he is still Yosef - one of Ya’akov’s sons - but he was specifically not Tzafenat Panei’ach. The Midrash teaches us that one of the key reasons we were saved from Egypt relatively quickly was because we kept our Hebrew-given names throughout all of the hardships of slavery.
We are now in exile and need to be saved. We can help bring the ultimate Ge’ulah faster if we not only stick to our Hebrew names, but make sure we do not allow our non-Jewish neighbors and the world we live in define who we are and what we can accomplish.