This week we begin the most significant of books, Exodus. While Genesis is filled with stories about our patriarchs and matriarchs, Leviticus with the laws of holiness, Numbers with the tribulations of wandering in the desert and Deuteronomy with a litany of everyday commandments, Exodus contains the most formative of our stories. It is here that we become a people when God takes us out from Egypt. It is this episode that we recount every year at our Passover Seders and every Shabbat when we join together in the kiddush.
And yet the book’s Hebrew name suggests nothing of this significance. In Hebrew it is called: Shemot—Names. On one level this is because a book’s (or portion’s) Hebrew names is given by its first most significant word. “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…” it begins. Not the dramatic beginning one might expect from the most important of our stories. Then again a great drama can unfold from the most ordinary of opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville famously wrote.
Then again what value is hidden within this opening verse? Perhaps it is not the story that the Torah portion begins to relate for us but instead the lesson. We begin our story by remembering our forefathers. This stands in stark contrast to our enemies. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” the portion also relates. Our suffering begins to unfold. It is triggered by forgetfulness. We know many names. He forgets one name.
Thus Exodus begins with remembrance and turns on forgetfulness. And herein lies the lesson. If we remember we cannot never forget who we are or what we are about. Exodus begins with the simplest of remembrances: recounting the names of our ancestors. It is as if to say: name your parents, grandparents and great grandparents. “Blessed are You Adonai our God, God our ancestors: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Rachel and God of Leah…” we begin the Amidah each and every time we gather to pray.
The Book of Exodus turns on the following. We remember. They forget.
The message becomes clearer. Remembering is the secret to our redemption. God commands: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” the Torah repeats over and over and again.
That lesson begins with a list of names.
And it is reaffirmed every time we recite kaddish.