According to the Midrash, the Israelites were saved from perpetual servitude in Egypt due to four things, one of which was that they did not change their Hebrew names. Yehuda remained Yehuda and did not become Leon; Reuven stayed Reuven and didn't switch to Rufus.
In light of this inflexibility, one finds it ironic that Moshe Rabbeinu, who was chosen by Hashem to deliver the Jewish nation from Egyptian bondage, apparently had an Egyptian name.
When Pharaoh's daughter, Batya, retrieved a baby from the river, she called him Moshe, "ki min hamayim mishisihu - for I drew him out of the water." The unlikelihood that Pharaoh's daughter was fluent enough in Hebrew to create a Hebrew name for her adopted son has led to various theories as to the origin of the name Moshe.
The Chizkuni gives two explanations. One, there is a tradition that Batya converted and therefore, yes, she did know Hebrew. Two, it is possible that Moshe's mother, Yocheved, named him Moshe and Batya approved.
Nevertheless, it appears, from a simple reading of the text, that Moshe was indeed an Egyptian name. This notion is elaborated upon by the Malbim, who quotes Philo's explanation that Moshe is composed of mo, Egyptian for water, and sheh, meaning exiting or escaping in Egyptian. The name Moshe, according to the Malbim, means the same thing in both Hebrew and Egyptian.
The Yalkut Shimoni offers a list of Moshe Rabbeinu's other names: "his father called him Chaver; his mother called him Yekusiel; his sister called him Yered; his brother called him Avi Zandach; his nurse called him Avi Socho; the Israelites called him Shemayah."
Nonetheless, Hashem always called him Moshe, the name that Batya gave him. With all of the various Hebrew alternatives, why did Hashem address Moshe exclusively by this name?
Rav Yehuda Amital gives a novel explanation for this preference. Water, being a liquid, takes on the shape of the container into which it is poured. Having no shape of its own, water constantly adjusts to its surroundings. It represents the ultimate in conformity.
Moshe, as the leader of the Jewish people and as Hashem's agent for rescuing them from Egypt, was, literally, "the one who was drawn out from the water." He was the "anti-water", a living symbol of the behavior that preserved the Israelites during their decades of bondage in Egypt. By maintaining their beliefs, language, customs and mode of dress in the face of ever-changing surroundings - by not conforming - the Jewish people were redeemed.
Their attitudes and actions serve as a model for Jewish survival always, in various exiles and under various oppressive regimes. By not being bound to outside influences and pressures, by remaining distinct no matter what the surroundings, Jews survive and flourish.
Indeed, the Exodus from Egypt culminates with the entire Jewish nation enacting this idea, as they pass through the waters of Yam Suf to emerge a free and independent people, with the strength and conviction to face whatever challenges may lie ahead.
Rabbi Zvi Ron
Rabbi Ron is Rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Beth Israel, Richmond, VA.
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