“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household.” Thus begins the book of Exodus – known in Hebrew as Shemot – Names. Now of course, we know these names already. Having just finished Genesis – we have spent quite some time learning the story of Joseph and his brothers – the very brothers mentioned in the second verse of the book of Exodus. So why repeat them here?
The simple answer, of course, is that this is a new book and naming the names connects the reader to the previous book and story – it lets you know that this is a direct sequel to the action. But I think there is more to it.
In the book of Shemot – the Jewish people will go on an epic journey that will evolve them from a mixed multitude – to a unified people. This story defines us more than any other. From this point forward, we will understand our traditions through the lens of: “for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” So, the book of Shemot is about the names of our ancestors who stood at Sinai as much as it is about us (who tradition tells us stood spiritually alongside them.) Our names are based on theirs and grow from theirs into who we become as individuals and as a people.
In this beginning of the book of Exodus – we name the ancestors from which we come – we go on to name the leader who will bring us into salvation and even to “name” G-d to some decree as G-d tells us, “I will be what I will be.” And our name? Our peoplehood? Our name is our story – we are Israel – we are the ones who were enslaved and are now free – we are a people who care about the widow, the orphan and the stranger – and our name gets remade every day and with every action connected to us by others and by our own self-perception.
Let us always work to continue to give ourselves and our people a good name.
Cantor Sally L. Neff