January 19, 2017
21 Tevet 5777
Written by: Rabbi
The name of this week's Parshah is, well, "Names" -- "Shemot," which is also the name of the entire second book of the Chumash. The source for this name of the book appears in early sources (such as the Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 3).
The English (or rather Latin) name of the Book, "Exodus," seems to make a lot more sense that the Hebrew name, "Shemot," or "Names." What does "Names" have to do with the contents of this book, which describes the events of the Exodus, the sojourn of the Jewish people in the wilderness, the receiving of the Torah, the building of the Tabernacle, etc.
The name "Shemot" seems to be a reasonable title for the Parshah itself. After all, the Parshah begins with a list of thirteen names of the members of Yaakov's family: "And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt..." (1:1). The emphasis on people's names continues as the Parshah relates, "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, the name of one of whom was Shifra, and the name of the second was Pu'ah" (1:15). (A topic for further discussion, however, is the Torah's abrupt cessation from this emphasis on names in chapter two, when it does not relate the names of the parents of Moshe (2:1-2), the name of his sister (2:4), the name of Pharaoh's daughter (2:5), and the name of Moshe himself (2:2-10), who is referred to merely as "the boy" until he gets a name (2:10).)
Still, though, in what way does the name "Names" represent the essence of the Parshah or the essence of the Book of Exodus?
The Book of Exodus is the story of the development, or perhaps more specifically -- the birth, of the Jewish people. Until now, the Torah spoke of individuals -- Adam and Chavah, Noach and the individual members of his family, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and so on. Now that the Torah introduces us to the people, it is easy to forget that each member that makes up that people is important and significant in his or her own right. One may have a tendency to think: What does it matter what I do, when there are millions of others? I'm just one person in a huge group; I'm insubstantial, my significance is infinitesimally meager. I'm dispensable.
What is a name? A name is a way to designate an item (or person) as distinct from another. A name ("Shem") enables us to identify and locate ("Sham") an individual. It designates me as separate and apart from you. It gives me significance as a unique individual, apart from, and a part of, the group of which I am a member. It tells me that I am important, it tells you that you are important, and it tells me that you are important. It helps strike the balance between recognizing my individual strengths and my uniqueness, and recognizing that those strengths must be contributed to the group for the greater good of all of us.
This perspective has wide-reaching implications, from the way I view my own role in the world, to the way I raise my family, to the orientation of the school to which I entrust the education of my children. This is part of what the name "Shemot" teaches us and why it is the name of this Parshah and this Chumash.