Parshat Shemot: Shemot or Exodus

Shemot or Exodus

Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt is Rosh Kollel of Ohr Torah Stone’s Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary.

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Is it the Book of Shemot or Exodus?  How should we refer to the second book of the Pentateuch which we begin reading this week?  Many people think that the Book of Shemot is called so because of the second word in the book – “Ve’ele shemot bnei Yisrael” (“And these are the names of the sons of Israel”); while the name Exodus (first coined by the Septuagint in the 3rd Century) reflects the main content of the book – the exodus from Egypt.  However, the book’s Hebrew name, Shemot (meaning “names”) highlights an important theme which appears not only in our portion of Shemot, but throughout the entire book.  In fact, this choice of name -Shemot or Exodus – reflects a deep-rooted controversy, one which has bearing on the way we understand the second book of the Torah in its entirety, and also on how we relate to the Redemption and the role of mankind in it.

The Book of Shemot is obsessive regarding people’s names. Our portion opens with the names of the sons of Israel who came down to Egypt, and the exegetes immediately ask:  for what purpose?  The Torah has already mentioned the names of all the sons of Yaakov coming down to Egypt at the end of the Book of Bereishit.  Why is this repetition necessary?

Rashi explains that because Israel is God’s beloved people, the Torah wanted to count them again.  The Ramban offers a literary explanation, saying that the Book of Shemot is not only a continuation of Bereishit, but is also an independent literary unit.  As such, it necessitates an additional mention of all the names of the sons of Israel, which will serve as background for the story of the enslavement in Egypt and the ensuing redemption.  However, there may be yet another reason why the names and identities of all those coming to Egypt are so important; so much so, that they are mentioned again.

A little later in the Book, the Torah tells us of Shifra and Pu’ah.  Who are they?  The Midrash asks why it is necessary to mention by name the two midwives in question.  Is it necessary for the plot that we are told their names? (In contrast, we are not told the name of the Egyptian man who kills an Israelite; nor the name of the Israelite who was killed.)  The Midrash then contends that by mentioning the midwives’ names, the Torah wishes to tell a more profound story of the characters of Yocheved and Miriam.

Not only are the names of people mentioned in our portion, but the names of God as well.  When God reveals Himself to Moshe at the burning bush, Moshe insists on knowing God’s different names.  This desire stems from the fact that Moshe does not wish to talk about the concept of “God” in a general or amorphic manner.  He needs a name; he needs a concept that would convey a deeper and more personal understanding of the Holy One, Blessed be He.  And God replies: “Thus shalt thou say to the Children of Israel – Ehyeh has sent me to you”.  But immediately following this, God continues and says: “Thus shalt thou say unto the Children of Israel: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Yaakov, hath sent me unto you” (Shemot 3, 15).  God, it seems, prefers to be identified as the God of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, and in reference to this name, and no other, He says: “This is My name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all generations.”  This is how I want you to remember Me. 

If so, how are names significant?

The Shulchan Aruch (in Orach Chaim 56) holds that a person who walks into a synagogue and has just missed the chazzan saying Kaddish, but does hear the congregation replying “Yehe shme rabbah mevorach,” should nonetheless join the congregation in its reply.  Sometimes we don’t really hear the chazzan reciting the words of prayer, but we do hear those who have heard him and that suffices in itself, because we understand and feel the sanctity of the moment.  Similarly, oftentimes we find it difficult to “hear” or feel God in our own lives, but we are still able to acknowledge the fact that there are others who do feel Him and make His word known in the world. 

The Rambam in Hilchot Yeshodei HaTorah (Chapter 5) concludes that the sanctification of God’s name and the desecration of God’s name can often result from the good or bad behavior of observant Jews and Torah scholars because they are the ones who represent God’s name in the world.  In other words, God is not only manifest in the world through books and letters, but also through the people who follow in His footsteps. 

This is why God instructs Moshe to tell the Children of Israel that He is the God of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov – in order to convey the message that even in Egypt, the land of bondage, when it is difficult for them to feel God or believe in His existence, they should recall their fathers, and their fathers before them, whom they know closely, and remember that these forefathers did recognize God’s existence and lived an exemplary life.  It follows that any person can come to recognize God through his family, his tradition and the elders of his generation.  As is written: “Ask thy father, and he will inform you, thine elders, and they will tell you.” (Devarim 32, 7).

In his book titled Eder Hayekar, Rabbi Kook eulogizes his father-in-law, Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (also known by his acronym ADeReT) who was a rabbi in Ponevezh, Mir and later in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Kook also includes words of praise for Tales of Tzaddikim.  A person might oftentimes look at the Torah, its noble ideas and the great demands it makes of us to observe the mitzvot and conduct ourselves with dignity – and fall into despair.  How can a human live such a lofty existence?  How can he achieve such levels of precision and spirituality?  At such moments “let the Israelite lift his eyes to the elders of his time, to those few who have outstanding qualities”, and by so doing he will not only understand and acknowledge the value of these righteous people, but will also acknowledge his own potential.  After all, a righteous man is anyone who tries hard and succeeds; the exemplary person is the one who shows everyone that it is possible to succeed, and that each and every one of us has the spirit and has the strength to move forward and become better. 

It follows, that, on occasion, highfalutin talk of great ideals and huge miracles that makes no mention of great people, can ultimately undermine man, make him feel little and lead him to despair.  But when one meets exceptional people in the flesh and blood, one may come to believe that he, too, can obtain such levels of existence.

The name Exodus highlights the miracle of the exodus from Egypt.  It relates to a specific incident that emphasizes the miracles performed by God, but does not ignore the people in whose merit we departed from Egypt.  When we call the second book of the Torah Shemot, it is not only because of the word appearing in the first verse in the book, but also because we wish to highlight the people who toiled hard to preserve their Jewish identity and keep close to God; the women who decided to rebel against the king of Egypt and save the lives of children; our fathers Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. It is in the merit of all of these people that we never forget that we, too, can become exemplary figures, great human beings.

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