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Sh’mot, the Hebrew title of the Book of Exodus, means “names,” suggesting how significant the issue of identity will be as the saga of Jewish slavery, redemption, and revelation unfolds. Sh’mot opens with a list of the names of the Children of Israel as they came down to Egypt, counting each individual within those families: “Now all those descended from Jacob were seventy souls, and Joseph, who was in Egypt (Exodus 1:5).”
Shortly afterwards, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph (Exodus 1:8).” This Pharaoh, unaware of the name of the most famous Israelite–in fact, one of the most famous men in all of Egypt–will dedicate his life to eradicating all that the first few verses of Sh’mot had established.
By considering Pharaoh’s process of dehumanizing (essentially un-naming) the Children of Israel, we will discover how powerful names are, and how they can help us build a world of greater consciousness and conscientiousness.
Feeling threatened by the presence of the Children of Israel flourishing in his land, Pharaoh begins a multi-staged plan of isolation and oppression in order to estrange them from Egyptian society. As if anticipating Pharaoh’s next move, the Torah sets the stage by describing Israel as if it were a colony of insects: “The Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very strong, and the land became filled with them (Exodus 1:7).”
Viewed in such a light, Israel arouses disgust in the Egyptian people.This is in strong distinction to the opening of Sh’mot, in which each of the tribal heads are named, and every person, seventy souls, is counted.
Soon after that, “the Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with backbreaking labor,” fully alienating them from Egyptian society. They become a lowly caste of slaves, harshly driven by their taskmasters. The Midrash says that the excessive toil was designed to wear out the men and keep them from their wives, so that they would not reproduce.
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