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Parshat Shemot (5763)

This week's section is called, in Hebrew, 'Names'.

It begins with a list of the names of the tribes, and it contains an interesting dialogue between Moses and G-d by the burning bush about G-d's names (3:13).

At first glance this is not understood; we already know the names of the tribes from the book of Genesis why say them again?

It also isn't clear why Moses wants to know G-d's name and even more unclear what G-d answers him:

First G-d says His name is 'I will be' Then He says it is 'the L-rd', then 'The G-d of your fathers' then "The G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Issac, the G-d of Jacob".

What is G-d trying to say here? Why so many names?

Also is there any connection between G-d's names and the names of the tribes?

To answer I would like to tell a story.

The fourth Rebbe of Chabad, Rebbe Shmuel used to speak very highly of the Cantonistim; Jews of unusual self-sacrifice that had been 'snatched' from their homes from the age of five years and up to serve in the Czar's army as part of a cruel plan to 'persuade' them to leave Judaism. But overall, despite the years of tortures and brainwashing most of them clung to their Jewish identity.

On the Rosh HaShanna of 5639 (1879) the Rebbe told the following awesome story of the Cantonist Shimon Levin.

The Rebbe's father (third Rebbe of Chabad the 'Tzemach Tzedik') often visited groups of these brave soldiers and in one of his speeches he included the words, "One must sacrifice one's life rather than one's Judaism. Even if the Czar himself personally tells you to change your religion you must sacrifice yourself rather than obey him."

These words, spoken from the soul, had a deep effect on one sailor by the name of Shimon Levin.

Shimon was an excellent and devoted soldier of the Czar. He loved his job and was one of the best, perhaps the very best, sailor in the Czar's royal navy to the point that he was called by his compatriots called him Semion Bodri (Shimon the brave).

He had been promoted to the rank of officer and served at the naval base in Svastopol on the Black sea. Then, one glorious day, the base received notice that the Czar was to personally make a visit.

It is hard for us to imagine the fear and awe that the very mention of the Czar's name inspired in every Russian citizen no less an actual personal visit by his Royal Highness! The very thought filled the sailors with trepidation and trembling.

When the glorious day arrived the base had been scrubbed and polished for the visit and the sailors had a grand reception prepared. The band played, everyone was dressed in immaculately clean and pressed uniforms, even the decks of the ships gleamed. But the highlight of the day was something very special.

The commander of the base climbed to a platform, stood to his full height. The music stopped, everyone was silent, and he announced before the Czar that in honor of his royal Majesty, one of the officers would to perform an act of unmatched skill and unequaled bravery. The commander swung his finger majestically up pointing to the highest ship mast in the harbor some twenty meters high.

Again the drums began to roll and suddenly stopped.

Shimon Levin, in full battle gear, stood at the foot of the mast, saluted and bowed to the Czar and then, without hesitating climbed briskly up the mast, stood erect on its very point and, as the crowd gasped in amazement, jumped into thin air, arched his back and dived gracefully into the sea.

The crowd broke into applause as Shimon swam to shore, walked up to the Czar and bowed deeply.

The Czar was ecstatic. "Who is this man!?" he asked excitedly.

"His name is Semion Bodri the commander proudly replied.

"The Czar called out "Semion Bodri! I want you reward you. We will have another celebration at this same time here tomorrow!" And everyone once again applauded.

The next day the scene was repeated, but this time there were tens of new officials that the Czar wanted to impress and Shimon was wearing dry garments.

The Czar was to the point. He stood proudly and announced "Semion Bodri, you are a true soldier, a credit to the Royal Navy, and a Jewel in the crown of Mother Russia."Because of your act of power and splendor that you demonstrated yesterday I hereby promote you to the rank of General! Congratulations!" The crowd broke into wild applause, the sailors began singing a patriotic song and the band played along.

But when it all ended Shimon just stood there without a smile on his face. "Your majesty" he replied. "I am truly grateful but according to the laws which your highness has made it is forbidden for me to accept your magnificent gift." Silence reigned, only the wind could be heard whistling through the masts. "I am a Jew, your majesty and it is forbidden for a Jew to rise above the rank of petty officer."

The Czar was surprised and embarrassed. He had planned to brag before his generals and ministers and this Jew had made him look foolish.

"Then you will change your religion!" He announced angrily. "Do you hear me officer Bodri?! You will change your religion and become a general! NOW! "

"Your majesty!" answered Shimon. "With your majesty's permission, first I would like to repeat the feat that I performed yesterday for your royal highness."

Without waiting for an answer and before anyone knew what was happening, Shimon ran in the direction of the mast, swooped up his gear and, without stopping, put it on as he was running. Even more swiftly than yesterday he climbed to the peak, stood there proudly, the wind blowing through his hair and announced loudly enough for all to hear.

"Your majesty, Twelve years I have been serving in the Russian navy and I love my service with all my soul. But know, my King, that above all I am a Jew. Through my entire service I have kept the Sabbath and never eaten forbidden foods. I will never leave the G-d of Israel. 'Shma Yisroel HaShem Elokenu HaShem Echaud!!"

Again he gracefully dived from the mast arching in the air like a javelin before plunging down into the blue sea. But this time he did not come up.

Shimon the brave had conquered the Czar of Russia.

Three days later his body washed up on shore. The Czar was asked what to do and ordered that the body should be kept in a coffin under military guard for three days and then buried in the State cemetery.

But in Shimon's camp were two other Cantonists that had different plans. They could not bear the idea that a fellow Jew, especially their friend Shimon, should not have a Jewish burial.

They came up with a bold plan. Late the next night they stole into the cemetery, dug up a recently buried body, returned to Shimon's guarded body, left their corpse some distance away and managed to convince the guards to have a few drinks. When the guards were dead drunk, they switched corpses and whisked Shimon to his rest in grave they had dug earlier in a distant part of the forest.

But somehow their daring feat was discovered, perhaps it was one of the guards or maybe someone saw them in the forest. In any case they were arrested and tortured to make them reveal the grave but their lips remained sealed.

One died under torture and the other was killed by firing squad but to this day the location of Shimon's grave is unknown.


This answers our questions. A name is a connector. When one has a name he can be called; his identity can be felt in the world.

That is what is so special about the Jews not changing their 'names' in Egypt; despite the difficult two hundred year exile they did not change their identities, their connection to one another to life and to Judaism.

Similarly the Names of G-d are ways that G-d 'connects' to the world and how we connect to Him. That is what Moses meant when he said to G-d at the burning bush (3:13) "The Jewish people will as me what is Your name, what will I tell them?"

In other words, the Jews will want to know how to connect to You, G-d. Are you so distant that you are unapproachable? And if not then what is Your name; how can You be approached?

That is what G-d answered. I am certainly much nearer than you can imagine, but I am also much further:

According to Kabballa the name "I will be" is the mystery of mysteries and the concealed of concealed above even the spiritual.

The name "L-rd" however is closer; it implies that G-d is the Creator of all being, past, present and future at once.

Even closer is "the G-d of your fathers" A personal and intimate G-d that hears all prayers and forgives all sins.

But finally G-d reveals the true answer to the question. The way to approach Him is as the fathers did; 'M'sirut Nefesh' (self sacrifice).

Each person is different (therefore it says the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Issac etc.) but the common theme and essence of their service and ours is self sacrifice.

And the result of such service is 'Kiddush HaShem' literally 'Sanctifying' or more properly 'Revealing G-d's NAME' just like Shimon the brave in our story.

This is why Abraham, Issac and Jacob are called the fathers of Judaism; they were the first to do it. And that is why the Rebbe's praised the Cantonists because they continued the path of the fathers.

But today the Lubavitcher Rebbe assures us that all this can be done through joy, charity and brotherly love. We are standing on the shoulders of the millions that have sacrificed themselves before us through the ages. Today can reveal G-d's name by spreading Torah, Mitzvoth and devoting all our energy; actions, speech and thought to do all we can to reveal.....

Moshiach NOW!!

Copyright © 1999-2017 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

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