Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 -6:1)
Efrat, Israel – “And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; each individual came with his household….And all the souls who emerged from the loins of Jacob were seventy souls….” (Exodus 1:1,5)
These opening verses of the Book of Exodus are actually an abridged, shorter repetition of a much more detailed account of the family, which Grandfather Jacob brought with him on his journey to Egypt to meet his beloved son Joseph: “And Jacob arose from Be’er Sheba, and the Children of Israel lifted Jacob their father, their children and their wives onto the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to bring them… And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt: Jacob and his sons; the first born of Jacob is Reuven…. All the souls of the house of Jacob who came to Egypt were seventy.” (Genesis 46:5, 8, 27)
Rashi and Ramban, the two most classic Biblical Commentaries, explain that with these opening verses, the Book of Exodus establishes its connection to and continuity of the Book of Genesis; they both add that the repetition of names expresses the great love that our Biblical Author (God!) has for Jacob and his family.
I believe that the seemingly repetitive verses contain a message that not only goes beyond this and but holds the key to understanding the major mission and national mystery of the eternity of our people.
Please allow me to interpret our opening verses by reference to a totally different issue, a question that many young Jews are asking and which raises a serious Jewish existential problem: Why get married? And even more to the point: Why have children?
About a decade ago, I was invited to lecture to the faculty, the students and general public at a European university. Since this was my first visit to that city, I arrived in the early afternoon, checked into the hotel, and set out for an exploratory walk.
It was a perfect autumnal Sunday afternoon. The weather was refreshingly cool and invigorating, the sun shone and I had at least three hours to spare before my lecture. It was an area with many parks, the architecture of the buildings was interesting and I was greatly enjoying a few hours of rare solitude. But after a while, I felt a nagging sense that something was amiss, that a weird phenomenon could be felt roundabout. There were hardly any children.
Many adults of all ages were strolling about; I even noticed many people walking with their dogs! But almost no children. When the professor who introduced me at the public forum asked if I had had an opportunity to do some sightseeing (I had previously written to him that this would be my first visit), I shared with him and the audience the strange feelings I had about the dearth of progeny. His response almost bowled me over. “We Europeans have difficulties with younger children, who make noise and dirt and cannot be controlled; we have even greater problems with young adult children, who cost a great deal of money to be educated, who often fall short of expectations and who are generally ungrateful and insensitive…”
I was initially stunned by his words, an attitude so very different from the “children worship” which characterizes most of the Jewish and Israeli families I know. After all, the Hebrew-Yiddish word “nachas” – joyous satisfaction – is heavily identified with celebrations involving one’s children and grandchildren. But then I recognized the logic of his words and when I looked into the negative population growth of the vast majority of the European countries, I realized that perhaps it is observant Jewry which is out of step with the world. However, I am truly convinced that it is precisely our Jewish obsession with progeny which is responsible for our continued survival and contemporary rebirth, and which will guarantee our future.
One early Talmudic Commentary, Rabbenu Asher (1250-1328), maintains that there is no specific command to be married; marriage is merely the necessary preparation for fulfilling the commandment “to be fruitful and to multiply.” (Ketubot 1:12)
For, you see, Judaism is a grand “unfinished symphony”: the Abrahamic mission is to convey to the world of nations a God of love, morality and peace in historic time. God promises through His prophets that eventually a more perfect society will be formed and the world will be redeemed. Our narrative is to be found in the Bible, our unique lifestyle, celebrations and memorials are detailed in the Talmud, and each Jewish parent lives in order to convey this mission to his/her child. To be a Jew is to parent – or to take responsibility – for a Jewish child of the next generation.
Hence the formation of our nation in the Book of Exodus emanates from the continuity of the family in the Book of Genesis. Each family of patriarchs and matriarchs bequeathed those in the direct chain of continuity. Jacob – the man and his household, the man and his forebears – came along with all of his children and their children into Egypt.
These verses are not repetition of past events; they are guideposts for our future. All Jews must carry with them – wherever Jewish destiny takes them – the Jewish portable household civilization which formed our peoplehood. Only on the basis of that glorious past will be equipped to shape a significant and blessed future.