Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
In many ways, Sefer Shemot (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 Mount Sinai, where that same God established an eternal covenant with the Jewish People.
The Mishkan (Tabernacle)
The remainder of Sefer Shemot 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.
Shemot 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 Shemot 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.”)
For the family involved, and for those whose names were read, the time passed pleasantly and quickly. It was only for those who didn’t know the people being thanked that the list seemed excessively long. Certainly when you are singled out for special praise you enjoy having your name listed publicly. Look at all the plaques and dedications which festoon our synagogues, community centers, and federation buildings. Those names are there because the honorees and those who love them care about seeing people who perform good deeds recognized by the community.
In precisely the same way, the long lists of the Torah represent an assertion of human worth. We may not care about every name listed there, but the author of the Torah does and wants us to learn to care as well. Those names teach us that more people are involved in our lives than we care to acknowledge, that we are more deeply imbedded in our society than we will ever know.
Who You Are
Just think, for a moment, about all the people who have had an effect on who you are today. Your parents, siblings, grandparents, and close family are only a beginning. Include your preschool teachers and classmates. Add the parents of your preschool friends. Then all the teachers and friends in grade school. Don’t leave out your favorite TV characters and books. That inclusion means adding the names of many people you don’t even know–the authors of those books and the producers of the television shows.
Include those special teachers of your religious school days, culminating in your bar/bat mitzvah teacher, your childhood rabbi and cantor. In high school, the list broadens to include even more authors and thinkers who influence your life, athletic coaches, drama instructors, art teachers, people who give you summer and afternoon jobs, people who run your summer camp or summer vacations. And of course, your first romantic awakenings. A lengthy roster already, and this one only goes through high school!
You can see that a list of those people who contributed to who you are today would be tremendously long. To other people, your list would also be boring. But each of us cherishes such a private list of gratitude, since that list represents the many facets of our own personality. By insisting that we endure several such lists, the Torah opens us to recalling our own dependency on others, and also spurs us to be such influences for those people whose lives we can touch.
Whose lists are you on? How many lists could you be on that you have simply not bothered with–getting involved with your synagogue, donating blood with the Red Cross, becoming active in teaching religious school, or working with a homeless shelter, a political campaign, or an art festival? There are so many lists waiting to be assembled. All of them have a space available for your name, and only you can place you name where it should be.
We depend on each other to be able to blossom into the best that we can be. Not only as human beings, but as Jews–a small minority wherever we live–the deeds that we do for each other, the energy and insight we give to building a sensitive, caring, and stimulating Jewish community, the ways we demonstrate our love for our fellow Jews and for all humanity, such deeds can bless innumerable lives in unpredictable ways. “These are the names.” Where is yours?
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.