Shmot: These Are the Names

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmot

The Book of Exodus, or Sh’mot (“Names,” from the first significant
word of the first verse), begins in a way which immediately
establishes narrative continuity with the end of Genesis:

“And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt;
with Jacob, each man and his household came: Ruven, Shimon, Levi,
Yehudah, Yissachar,
Zevulun, and Binyamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. ” (Exodus
1:1-4)

Both modern and medieval commentators note that this book of the
Torah begins with the conjunction “and,” which seems to imply that
Exodus is picking up just where Genesis left off: with the sons of
Yaakov in Egypt, living under the care of their brother Yosef. Now,
of course, it’s a few generations later, and Egypt is about to turn
from a place of refuge into a place of dire oppression. The story of
Exodus is even more poignant with this reminder that the Israelites
went down to Egypt voluntarily, to find sustenance during a time of
famine and danger.

Another question raised in the classic Torah commentaries concerns
the necessity of naming each son of Yaakov. As our teacher Rashi
points out, the 11 sons were each named just a few chapters ago, in
Genesis 46. Rashi goes on to quote an earlier midrash:

Although [God] counted them in their lifetime by their names, The
Holyb One counted them again after their death, to let us know how
precious they are, because they were likened to the stars, which The
Holy One takes out [From beyond the horizon] and brings in by number
and by name, as it is said: Who takes out their host by number; all
of them God calls by name (Isa. 40:26). (Rashi on Exodus 1:1)

Notice the implication of this midrash: if God (in the words of
Isaiah) can care for every star in the sky, and call it by name,
then so too is each person precious and unique, called by name out
of love, even after death. It’s a beautiful image of a caring God,
Who doesn’t let individual human lives get reduced to statistics or
the sweep of history.

This is especially powerful given the brutal story which is about to
follow, in which we learn of the deaths of countless Hebrew babies-
and, let us not forget, every first-born in Egypt, along with the
entire Egyptian army. These victims (let us assume that at least
some of the Egyptians were innocent of their king’s madness) don’t
get called by name in the text, yet perhaps this first verse of the
book reminds us that no matter how big the story is, real people
suffer one at a time. Maybe Exodus lists the names of the sons of
Yaakov to remind us that each Hebrew slave had an ancestor who
dreamed of a better life for his descendants; each nameless death
was a whole life, a person who came from a loving family and whose
death caused intense grief.

At its best, religion can teach us to experience the world, as much
as we can, from God’s perspective. As Rashi points out, to the One
Who is our Divine Source, each of us has a precious name, a unique
individuality, a whole personhood. From God’s perspective, there are
no numbers attached to stories of human suffering- unlike the
newspapers I read yesterday, which tell me that “28 were killed in
Honduras,” “thousands homeless in Pacific Islands,” and “Bagdad
explosion wounds 19.”

As humans, we get so easily overwhelmed by the amount of suffering
in the world; it’s easy to forget that each of those numbers
represents a person with a name. Perhaps if we in the human race
felt the pain of the world – and the love of humankind – as the God
of Exodus does, with attention to each person’s individuality, their
goodness and their grief, we’d care for each other with much greater
measures of justice and mercy.

Very Important PS!
The story of Exodus (a cruel ruler oppressing and murdering other
peoples within his country) is happening right now, in Sudan.
Hundreds of thousands of people, each with a name, each with a story
and a suffering heart, are being displaced in the Darfur region. The
Conservative Movement, along with many other Jewish organizations,
is supporting efforts to convince the United States and other
powerful nations to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the
genocide. To learn more, please go here:
<http://www.savedarfur.org/ >.

After all, the Jews were the ones who coined the phrase, “never
again.” Let’s prove we meant it.

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