The Creation of a People
Rabbi David Fine studied at Yeshivat Hamivtar from 1994-1998 and received rabbinic ordination from the Joseph & Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary. He is the founder and dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development.
At the beginning of a new book of the Torah it is appropriate to ask the question: what is the purpose and main message of this book? If one looks at the introductions to the book of Shemot of both the Ramban and the Netziv of Volozhin one detects different emphases and answers to our question. However, ultimately the identical message springs forth from both of these commentators despite their differences.
The Netziv quotes the Behag who titles the book of Shemot- “Chumash Hasheni (the second Chumash)”. This indicates that the book of Shemot is a continuation of the book of Breishit. The book of Breishit is the book of creation – the creation of the physical world. The book of Shemot is about the spiritual creation of the world which is a result of the formation as a people of the people of Israel which occurs upon the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The message here is clear: the purpose of the world is not simply the physical but rather the spiritual. The spiritual world is most influenced by the people of Israel who, as a “light unto the nations,” will bring the entire world to a recognition of the one God. This could be why the book of Shemot begins with a listing of the names of the children of Jacob and the fact that they came to Egypt even though these facts are already known to us from the end of Breishit. The Torah wants to stress that, what at the beginning of the Book is a collection of individuals, is transformed into a nation by its middle.
The Ramban maintains that the book of Shemot is indeed its own sefer and not only a continuation of Breishit. He titles the Book – Sefer HaGeulah- the book of redemption. While one may think that redemption occurs upon the physical release of the people from Egypt or even upon the giving of the Torah, the Ramban maintains that the redemption only occurs at the end of the Book, upon the building of the Mishkan and its being filled with the glory of God. When God’s glory inhabits the Mishkan, then the people are “returned to the level of their forefathers.” The Ramban’s ultimate message is clear and is essentially not so different from that of the Netziv: redemption is not dependent on the physical, even the creation of the Jewish people. Redemption only can occur when the people interact and engage with God’s glory and thus strive to be on the level of their forefathers.
These are critical messages for the world we live in which often, in a very artificial way, suffices itself with the physical. There are many manifestations of this but the example which I would like to discuss is the Land of Israel. We, in the religious Zionist community, have focused for so long, rightfully so, on the physical settling of the land of Israel. However, we have not equally been concerned for the kind of society that has been built in the land. The society is often focused on externals instead of upon propagating true Jewish values. Only when we focus on bringing the Glory of God into the world will be living up to our true calling as a nation. We are a nation like none other. This is what the book of Shemot comes to tell us.