Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
The name of this parsha – like the name of the entire book – is “Shemot”. The name is derived from the two opening verses that list the names of the sons of Ya’akov, who went down to Egypt to escape the famine in the Land of Israel. Immediately thereafter, in the next verse, we learn that Ya’akov has died, along with all of his sons, and that a new king has arisen over Egypt. This king either did not know Yosef, or had forgotten everything – or at least had feigned forgetting everything. This is how the story of the first Jewish exile begins. The Egyptians subjugate their Hebrew guests, impose hefty fines on them, and force them to perform hard labor under oppressive conditions. This is the background for the events that transpire in the parsha.
It is particularly striking how the special name given to this parsha and to the eponymous book (Shemot, literally “Names”) corresponds to an even newer phenomenon, one that was not encountered in the previous book, Bereishit. Most of the protagonists in the story are unnamed, even when it seems appropriate to specify their names. For instance, when the Torah recalls the marriage of Moshe’s parents, it simply states: “A man went from the house of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi…” (2:1)
Didn’t these people have names? They did – they were Amram and Yocheved, and in fact, five chapters later, the Torah specifies their names. Why, then, did the Torah need to “hide” their names at this point?
The parsha also tells the story of an Egyptian striking a Hebrew – neither are mentioned by name, nor do we find any identifying details aside from their nationalities. Later, the Torah describes another event, in which two Hebrews were fighting. When Moshe tries to intervene, saying to the one who struck his fellow Jew, “Why would you strike your fellow?” (2:13), the response is acute and bitter: “Are you saying that you are going to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (2:14)
Here, too, there is no mention of the names of these two quarreling individuals (our Sages claim that these were Datan and Aviram, though the Torah leaves this vague).
Why does the Torah keep silent?
It seems as though the Torah wishes to show us a world of people who have been subjected, tortured, and left nameless. They might have had numbers tattooed onto the arms, and they may have had other identifying marks, but they certainly didn’t have a loving and affectionate personal name.
In contrast, the parsha also tells the story of two Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who risk their lives to deliver Jewish baby boys, defying Pharaoh’s explicit command to kill male Jewish newborns.
If so, why did the Torah choose to specify the names of certain protagonists, while omitting others?
A hint can be found in the account of the dispute that erupted between Moshe and the two quarreling Jews. Moshe responded, saying “Indeed, the matter has become known” (2:14). Taken simply, Moshe’s words seem to imply that Moshe had understood that his killing of the Egyptian had become public knowledge, and that he needed to flee Egypt before the Egyptian ruler found out.
However, Rashi, following the Midrash, understands Moshe’s statement differently: “The matter about which I had been puzzled has become clear to me. I used to ask, ‘How did Israel sin more than all the seventy nations of the world, that they should be tyrannized with crushing labor?’ But now that I see that there are informants among them, I see that they are deserving of such punishment.”
The Midrash is describing Moshe’s torment. Moshe seeks answers, and painfully inquires: “How did we reach this terrible state? What has caused our suffering?” He concludes that we deserve it. If two Jews can pummel each other, and even threaten to send anyone who would try to break up the fight directly into the clutches of the Egyptian police, we must indeed be the ones bringing this suffering upon ourselves.
Thus, when the Torah wishes to describe a particular phenomenon, it omits the names of the protagonists, as if to hint to us that this is not about two specific people, but was rather an ordinary event that lacks any element of uniqueness. It was merely two people hitting each other and informing on others. LIkewise, marriage of two people from the tribe of Levi is an everyday affair.
However, two heroic Jewish women who dare to deliver Jewish mothers’ babies directly under the Egyptian ruler’s nose, exposing themselves to tremendous danger – are clearly bona fide heroines – and they stand out within the subjugating Egyptian landscape.
The transition between the Book of Bereishit (Genesis) and the Book of Shemot (Exodus) is about individuals developing into families, and families merging into a nation. A number of individuals will stand out, and their actions will be exceptional. However, this description of social behavior won’t include any names. This is our behavior as a nation. We are all part of the nation, and it is part of our identity as individuals, and as a society. We have no choice but to deal with this behavior, as it is part of our existence as a nation..