Why איש מבית לוי and בת לוי? If they are important enough to mention, why not say their names? It’s not as though we don’t know who we are talking about:
The Maharal gives an explanation:
This assumes that Moshe is sui generis; that his birth was so miraculous that his actual parents were irrelevant to his existence. I’m uncomfortable with this; as Hirsch explains, Judaism does not see its founders as anything more than human, who pulled themselves up to a level of greatness. I would prefer another explanation.
And when you look closely, this anonymity pervades the parasha:
Pharaohs had names; we have שישק מלך מצרים and פרעה נכה in מלכים, and פרעה חפרע in ירמיהו among others. But not here. It’s either מלך מצרים or פרעה.
And obviously we know מרים's name.
And while we have no source in the text, the Midrash identifies this בת פרעה with one mentioned in דברי הימים:
The one exception to this anonymity in the first chapters of שמות turns out not to be an exception:
But שפרה and פועה are not really names but job descriptions (kind of like פרעה):
Rashi summarizes the Gemara. The Gemara itself emphasizes the sense of anonymity:
The Torah builds up this sense of anonymity, of namelessness, until we get to Moshe with a palpable sense of relief:
And the irony here is that the name of the parasha (indeed, the entire book) is שמות, because it starts with a list of בני ישראל but emphasizes not who came but their names:
What’s in a name? Your name represents who you are, your identity as an individual. איוב, complaining about those who mock him, calls them בְּנֵי בְלִי שֵׁם:
To take away someone’s name is to dehumanize them; in the beginning of Les Mis Valjean insists on being called by his name but Javert only refers to him by number. He is not a person, he is a convict and less than human:
Rashi emphasizes the love that ה׳ shows by naming all the בני ישראל:
Comparing them to the stars points out not so much their quantity but their individual importance:
בני ישראל were so brutalized, so dehumanized by slavery that they did not have names, only tasks. Slavery dehumanizes the slaves. But it’s more than that. Even מלך מצרים doesn’t have a name. Slavery dehumanizes the slaveholders as well. The Torah subtly but inexorably builds up this image of a society where people only exist to serve society. They have no names. It’s a perfect image of fascism.
The Torah emphasizes this importance of naming individuals when it limits our ability to conduct a census. Each Jew is a person, not a number.
And we know that בני ישראל held on to their names despite the years of oppression in Egypt. We often mention the quote, “they did not change their names, their language, and their mode of dress”. But what is less known is that this quote doesn’t actually exist.
According to Rabbi Eli Fischer, the modern form of this Midrash was mentioned in Midrashic collections from the sixteenth century but was popularized by the Chatam Sofer’s ethical will in which he said,
Our version is an amalgamation of two sources. One is מדרש לקח טוב, an eleventh century commentary on the Torah, where he expands on the verse quoted in the Haggada:
He is just giving examples of how the Jews stayed distinct from the Egyptians. There’s no textual source (as there was none for the Chatam Sofer).
The other source is ויקרא רבה, where the emphasis is not on how the Jews remained distinct, but on the merits that they had:
And that is based on the Mechilta, which is an early Tannaitic source:
What is the זכות of keeping their names? It has to be more than keeping their cultural heritage; that’s what לא שנו
את לשונם means. I think it goes back to the idea that we started with, that they kept their individual identity and humanity intact even in the face of the oppression of slavery and in the face of the anonymizing Egyptian culture. The מצוה was similar to לא נחשדו על
לשון הרע, that they used those names, that they spoke to each other as individuals and as human beings. That made them worthy of being considered for גאולה, and, when they would become an independent nation, worthy of being counted במספר שמות.