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Overview of Parshat Shemot

by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky

Chumash Shemot

  

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In the Book of Exodus, we see the seeds planted by the forefathers sprout: their descendants are transformed into a nation, receive their code of life—the Torah, and prepare to fulfill their mission in life by building the Tabernacle, G-d’s “home” on earth.

Thus, the Hebrew name of the Book of Exodus is Shemot, meaning “Names,” for through the events chronicled in this book, the Jewish nation and each individual Jew receive their “name,” their essential national and personal identities as Jews.

The key to this process is exile. Exile calls forth the individual’s hidden potential, his drive to survive despite the odds against him. In exile, a person cannot take life for granted; he must constantly decide whether to succumb or to overcome. The essential point of self-determination that lies dormant during periods of prosperity and freedom is bared and tested during exile. This is why King Solomon called the Egyptian exile “the iron furnace”:1 it burned away the dross covering the innate Jewish soul.

The Egyptian exile was both physical and spiritual. In fact, as we shall see, the spiritual exile preceded and precipitated the physical exile, since every physical phenomenon is just an expression of its spiritual antecedent. The Jews’ physical exile entailed loss of autonomy and backbreaking bondage; their spiritual exile was enslavement to the host culture, which led to the loss of Divine consciousness and the loss of their awareness of G-d’s involvement in life. As we witness the descent of Jacob’s family into progressively more severe physical exile, we can read between the lines and discern their descent into greater and deeper spiritual exile.

As the spiritual and physical exiles both intensified, the Jews were forced to confront their identity. Many of them succumbed to assimilation and were lost, but others struggled to retain their Jewish identity: they tenaciously held on to their traditions, refusing to give up even such incidental aspects of their heritage as their Jewish names and their Jewish language.2 The fact that they refused to give up even these external trappings of their cultural heritage indicated that they still nurtured their inner seed of faith in their destiny, even though they adopted certain aspects of the Egyptian mindset and lifestyle.

This explains why the Book of Exodus opens with a list of Jacob’s sons, even though such a list seems superfluous. We already know the names of Jacobs’ sons: we have seen them born3 and listed twice,4 the second time in even greater detail than here! Furthermore, this list contributes nothing to the narrative flow of the Biblical story. After we read how Joseph was interred in Egypt at the end of the Book of Genesis, the narrative should logically continue with how “the Israelites were fertile and prolific...and a new king, who did not know Joseph, arose over Egypt.”5

The sages give three reasons why Jacob’s sons are listed again:

  • to stress that the Jews did not change their Jewish names to Egyptian ones, that is, that they refused to assimilate totally into Egyptian culture;6
  • to inform us that G-d considers the Jews as precious as the stars, whom He also counts by name when they go into “exile” (at daybreak) and when they come out of “exile” (at nightfall);7 and
  • to tell us that Jews are essentially good, for the Torah introduces righteous people with the formula “his name was x” and wicked people with the formula “x was his name.”8 Here, too, the phrase “these are the names” precedes the list of proper names.

These reasons all highlight the unassailable core of Jewish essence, the seed of essence planted by Abraham that lay dormant during the exile. Because of this inner essence, the Jewish people are intrinsically motivated to fulfill their Divine mission. Their awareness of this precious quality inspires them to cling to their identity and resist the temptation to assimilate. In this context, listing the sons’ names individually also alludes to the fact that every Jew has a unique purpose in rectifying creation.

So, we see that the emphasis on names alludes to both the condition of exile (i.e., that assimilation has progressed to the point where we are Jewish in name only) and the means to overcome it (i.e., that we possess a core-essence of Jewish identity that cannot be defiled).

Therefore, the first parashah of the book, which describes the exile—the spiritual descent the Jewish people underwent and the horrors of their enslavement—is also called Shemot, “Names,” even though the list of names with which it opens emphasizes that the Jew’s essence is beyond exile.

This dichotomy is part of the nature of names in general. On the one hand, names are arbitrary and reveal nothing about a person’s essence: two entirely different people can have the same name. On the other hand, a person’s name is connected to his essence and can awaken it. People focus totally when they are called by name (which is why people who want to influence or disarm us make a point of addressing us by name); people can be awakened from a swoon by calling their name; and according to Jewish mysticism, a person’s name is the channel through which his existence and spiritual life-force flow into his body. Names exhibit this duality because our true essence is normally hidden behind the many layers of social conventions and personality masks we have accumulated throughout our lives. Normally, the only time our true essence cuts through these façades is when they are of no relevance—when we are confronted with some challenge that either threatens our lives or strikes deep into the essence of our being in some other way. In other words, our true essence is accessed through the part of us that has the least to do with the persona we have developed to present to the outside world—through our name.

Once exile succeeded in revealing the inner essence of the Jewish people, they could proceed on to the next phase: the giving of the Torah. The exile was prerequisite to receiving the Torah because the purpose of the Torah is to teach us how to bring Divine consciousness into the most mundane aspects of reality, even those that appear to be antithetical to Divine consciousness. The Jewish people actualized their innate ability to do this, to overcome the forces opposing G-dliness, in exile. Once the people received the Torah, they could proceed to actualize its message in the world; this was the essence of the Tabernacle.

The overall lesson of the Book of Exodus, the book of “Names,” then, is this: no matter how hard it may seem, we must not give up the struggle for Divine consciousness; the opposing forces are mighty but we have the power to overcome them. Self-sacrifice reveals the essence of our soul, and by revealing our soul and fulfilling its unique mission, we help usher in the redemption.9

The above overview is an excerpt from "The Torah with an Interpolated English Translation and Commentary Based on the Works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe" published by Kehot Publication Society.

Footnotes

  • 1. 1 Kings 8:51.
  • 2. Shemot Rabbah 1:28; Vayikra Rabbah 32:5; Sefer HaMa’amarim 5737, p. 118.
  • 3. Genesis 29:32-30:24.
  • 4. Ibid. 35:22-26; 46:8-27.
  • 5. Exodus 1:7-8.
  • 6. Shemot Rabbah 1:28; Vayikra Rabbah 32:5.
  • 7. Shemot Rabbah 1:3. See Isaiah 40:26; Psalms 147:4.
  • 8. Rut Rabbah 4:3. The idea is that an egocentric, boastful person brandishes his name, while a humble person is more self-effacing. For examples, see 1 Samuel 9:1, 9:2, 17:4, 25:25.
  • 9. Likutei Sichot, vol. 3, pp. 843-848, vol. 16, pp. 34-37, vol. 26, pp. 301-305.

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