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Shemot and Saving Names

Why does the most important book of the Torah, the book of Exodus that details our people’s liberation from Egypt and tells the story that we recount at our Passover Seders begin with the most ordinary list of names?

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.” (Exodus 1) Certainly a more dramatic introduction could have been written.

Then again remarkable stories sometimes begin with the most mundane and seemingly ordinary opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” is among the most famous of such opening lines. It begins the epic story of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The Torah however is more than a literary masterpiece. Each word, every sentence, suggests a lesson. Every nuance points to a teaching.

And so we learn that every story must begin by honoring those who came before us. The Talmud for example expends great effort discussing which rabbi authored an opinion. Before even beginning a debate the Talmud’s discussion frequently digresses to questions about authorship. “Did not Rabbi Michael Moskowitz say in the name of Rabbi Steven Moskowitz? Others say it was Rabbi Susie Moskowitz in the name of Rabbi Michael Moskowitz.”

Before we can march forward we must remember and honor those who came before us. Naming those who preceded us begins our story; it solidifies the lesson. We give honor to our predecessors. The secret to redemption, which is the theme of the Book of Exodus, turns on remembrance. Zachor, the command to remember, is a core Jewish belief. Forgetfulness on the other hand leads to ruin.

The story continues. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Pharaoh erases history. He forgets Joseph and the good he performed for Egypt. Pharaoh’s forgetfulness leads to our suffering.

Our salvation begins with remembrance. “God heard the Israelites’ moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2) God remembers the promise made in prior generations, the pledge made to our forefathers. Pharaoh forgets. We suffer. God remembers. God names Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And we are redeemed.

The names become intertwined. The story unfolds.

The Exodus story hinges on the names we recount. In Hebrew the Book is called Shemot—Names. We name the children of Israel. And so begins the story of our redemption.

Our most important story, the story of our freedom from Egypt, begins with the recounting of names. We in turn begin the telling of our own history by naming our parents and grandparents. We recall our ancestors. Only by naming those who came before us can we find redemption and write a better future.

A prayer. We are saddened that once again we have witnessed another barbaric terrorist attack. Terrorism continues to strike at Western values. We mourn the murders of twelve people at the French magazine, Charlie Hedbo. We mourn the cartoonists, writers, editors and police officers. We pray for healing for those injured in the attack. We pray: may terrorism fail in its intent to strike fear in our hearts. May we instead find the strength to renew our faith in the values we hold dear: democracy, pluralism and freedom of the press.