Parashat Sh'mot

The Book of Names

Our names are our essence.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

Sh'mot, the Hebrew title of the Book of Exodus, means "names," suggesting how significant the issue of identity will be as the saga of Jewish slavery, redemption, and revelation unfolds. Sh'mot opens with a list of the names of the Children of Israel as they came down to Egypt, counting each individual within those families: "Now all those descended from Jacob were seventy souls, and Joseph, who was in Egypt (Exodus 1:5)."

canfei nesharimShortly afterwards, "A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph (Exodus 1:8)." This Pharaoh, unaware of the name of the most famous Israelite--in fact, one of the most famous men in all of Egypt--will dedicate his life to eradicating all that the first few verses of Sh'mot had established.

Dehumanization

By considering Pharaoh's process of dehumanizing (essentially un-naming) the Children of Israel, we will discover how powerful names are, and how they can help us build a world of greater consciousness and conscientiousness.

Feeling threatened by the presence of the Children of Israel flourishing in his land, Pharaoh begins a multi-staged plan of isolation and oppression in order to estrange them from Egyptian society. As if anticipating Pharaoh's next move, the Torah sets the stage by describing Israel as if it were a colony of insects: "The Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very strong, and the land became filled with them (Exodus 1:7)."

Viewed in such a light, Israel arouses disgust in the Egyptian people.This is in strong distinction to the opening of Sh'mot, in which each of the tribal heads are named, and every person, seventy souls, is counted.

Soon after that, "the Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with backbreaking labor," fully alienating them from Egyptian society. They become a lowly caste of slaves, harshly driven by their taskmasters. The Midrash says that the excessive toil was designed to wear out the men and keep them from their wives, so that they would not reproduce.

Next, Pharaoh tries to get the Hebrew midwives to kill all newly born males. From here it is a small step indeed to the final solution: Pharoah commands his people to drown all male babies in the Nile.

How terribly reminiscent of our people's recent history. First the dehumanization, the terrible propaganda, that ascribed the name of enemy to an entire people. Friends, neighbors, business partners, great thinkers--the Nazis learned to see all these people as nothing but Jude, Jew.

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Udi Hammerman

Udi Hammerman studies psychology and Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University. He also works extensively in outdoor Jewish education with teens and young adults, guiding trips and as part of the Program and Curriculum Development team for Derech Hateva, an association connected with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.