Sefer Breshit has concluded, and to borrow from the late Paul Harvey, it’s time for the rest of the story.
“Everybody knows” that the books of the Torah take their names from the first significant word when in Hebrew, but the non Hebrew names are thematic. The second book, which we begin this Shabbat, is a great example. We call it “Shemot”, but in English it’s rendered as “Exodus”. (That itself is an interesting choice. Imagine if the name were “Revelation” and highlighted the giving of the Torah rather than the escape from Egypt.)
The Torah’s five books can be grouped, and often are, as 1+3+1. The first book is the story of families, the next three are the story of nation building, and the fifth book is a combination of recapitulation, more legislation, and the farewell to Moshe Rabbeinu.
Why does sefer shmot begin with a recounting of Joseph’s family? Is this simply a transitional device, or a way to ease gently into the new story of our people descending into and then climbing up out of the slavery of mitzrayim? For an answer we borrow a principle made well known by Professor Alter; that the first utterance by a person in the Torah is a clue and a definition of his (or her!) character. We’ll apply this to the names of the books as well. Breshit is all about creating. Creating a world, creating humans, creating a society, and creating the family of Hebrews that will eventually become the nation of Jews. (Works pretty well for book one, I think. Let’s see if it will work for the second book as well.)
First we should recall that a number of parshiot contain a census, and as the number of people increases, only a few pivotal individuals merit a mention. Nations, we might think, are built in the aggregate. The greatest good for the greatest number becomes an organizing principle. The opening verses of Shemot are themselves a mini census and set out the formula for the ones that follow. Some individuals are named, and the total number of people is reported.
Applying the “Alter principle”, Sefer shemot must therefore be all about names, and specifically, the names of b’nai yisrael. Names are simply labels, so we’ll take a baby drash step and say that it is really about people. More precisely, individual people. We will meet some of them over the next 11 parshiot. Some are famous (Moshe), others infamous (Pharoah) and many are anonymous. Really, most of them are anonymous to us, and undoubtedly to their leaders.
I can hear you beginning to wonder “is there going to be a point to this?” Yes, there is. And here it is.
This Shabbat we begin reading the story of how we became a nation that survives to this very day. But we are a nation of individuals. And individuals matter. When a mitzvah is performed, and individual performs it. When a minyan is formed, it takes ten individuals to make it. When a corner of the field is left unharvested for the poor, it is an individual who must make sure this happens. When a sick person must be visited, it’s an individual who visits.
This is why we begin with ‘these are the names of the members of Israel’. Because we need – and are given – a reminder that individuals matter. It’s “I – Thou” and not “We -Thou”. No matter how big the group, no matter how ginormous the budget, no matter how great the cause – individuals have the names, and each individual (we hope in our day) matters.