These Are The Names--Where Is Yours?

By listing the names of Jacob's family members who went into Egypt the Torah reminds us of the number of people who affect our lives and our potential to affect the lives of numerous others.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

In many ways, Sefer Sh'mot (the Book of Exodus) is the most Jewish book of the Torah. It begins with the origins of the Jewish People as a nation--newly liberated from Egyptian slavery by the God who created the Universe, led to Mt. Sinai, where that same God established an eternal covenant with the Jewish People.

The Mishkan

The remainder of Sefer Sh'mot details the content of that covenant in the many mitzvot (commandments) that comprise Jewish practice and then authorizes the building of a place of worship, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) so that God can dwell amidst the Jews.

Sh'mot has it all--a wonderful story of God's saving love, extensive mitzvot so Jews can reciprocate and concretize that love, and a form of worship where both God and Jews can celebrate their relationship together. Why, with all those great details, would Sefer Sh'mot start with a long list of names?

The book begins "These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household..." The narrative proceeds to list each of those children, even though the list already appeared throughout the Book of Genesis.

Lists of Names

In fact, this is not the only place in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scripture) where a long list of names appears. These boring lists are the first to go whenever Reader's Digest or some other user-friendly group tries to streamline the Holy Book! Why, if lists are so boring, would there be so many of them? And why start an otherwise promising book with one? Jewish commentators provided several answers to that problem.

Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah states that listing the names "adds new praise for the 70 souls who are mentioned, indicating that all of them were righteous." Here, listing names is a way of affirming the worth of each individual listed. In a similar vein, that same Midrash equates the importance of the People Israel with the stars in the heavens, noting that the same Hebrew word "Sh'mot" (names) is used to apply to both.

Rashi summarizes these midrashim when he informs us that "even though they were recorded during their lifetimes by their names, the Torah returned and recorded them after their deaths to proclaim how beloved they were." Lists only matter if those listed matter. All of us can remember reading an author's lengthy acknowledgment that stretched over several pages, or can recall enduring a retirement speech or a Bar Mitzvah speech during which a long list of names consumed an endless amount of time. ("I'd like to thank my Uncle Milt and Aunt Esther for flying all the way from Atlanta to be here today.")

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.