A teaching from Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, from Or Torah, Parshat Shemot.
These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt…each man and his house came. וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ
The holy Zohar says that “all the Torah is made up of names of G!d” (1). This includes even the names of people, which are also divine names in the world above. For example Reuben — that is to say, the combination of letters that make the name Reuben — exists above, in a different combination, as one of G!d’s names. The Reuben who exists below is named after this combination above, for the root of his soul is from this divine name. This applies to the other names listed here and to the names of non-Jews as well, such as Esau and Pharaoh — they exist above in holiness [as names of G!d].
This is what our verse is hinting at. This is not just a story of how they came to Egypt — rather, it is all names of G!d. And if you should ask how the Torah could use the names of people as names of G!d, I will tell you to look at the words, each man and his house. The man is the holy name above and his house is the person in this world below, for the name above “dresses” itself as the person below who shares that name. So the person below is called a “house,” for it is really only a house for the root of his soul above.
1) Zohar II, 87a
Here, from the “theoretician” of Hasidism, comes one of the fundamental ideas — that each one of us is a unique manifestation of G!d. Today, two hundred years after this teaching was given, this is almost a truism, but at the time it was revolutionary. While the idea had existed in Jewish (and Christian and Islamic) mysticism for centuries, it was usually seen as too radical to be shared with the public; Hasidism’s bold move was to let this cat out of the bag. What particularly strikes me about the Maggid’s teaching is his inclusion of Esau and Pharaoh as names of G!d — he could have used positive images of non-Jews, such as Noah, Jethro, and Melchitzedek, but instead he chose classic arch-enemies, who were not only bad guys in their own right but had come to symbolize theenemies of the Jews throughout history. What’s more, he did this in a time when, sadly, most people were more likely to equate the Other with the devil than with G!d — Christians, whether as part of a supercessionist theology or simply out of hatred, usually saw the Jews as agents of evil, and the Jews were often too happy to return the favor. So each religion betrayed its universalist core. That, in this context, the Maggid could tell his disciples that the people who just pillaged their village are no less an image of G!d than they are is powerful stuff. Even if it has become a truism today, I still think it’s powerful stuff, if we actually act like we believe it. If we truly see every person we meet as a unique “name” of G!d, how will we treat them?