Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of January 8-14, 2012


“We Remember their Names”
By Chaplain Claire Gorfinkel, ‘11

This drash is in honor of our teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel whose yahrzeit occurs this week.  May his name be remembered for a blessing throughout the generations.

Once upon a time . . . ah, we are entering into a great story here.  Who is not already familiar with it?  Once upon a time there arose in Egypt a new king and he knew not Joseph.  As with the opening line of the fairy tale, I have always thrilled to this verse in Shemot, the first parsha of Exodus, as it establishes the narrative that will lead to our epic journey towards liberation.

But wait, this is Shemot.  It doesn’t begin with “a new king arose over Egypt,” it begins with the names.  The entire book is called Shemot – not “Exodus” – and it opens with the names of the sons of Jacob/Israel who came to Egypt, each with his household, and became fertile, filling the land: twelve tribes, who had been so recently enumerated in much greater detail in parashat Vayigash.

Significantly, the new Pharaoh did not know Joseph.  He did not know the name or the story, so he did not value the descendants of the one who had rescued his nation from famine.  He merely feared them because they had grown numerous, and the more he oppressed them, the more they increased.

Moses’ lineage is explicit: his father was from the house of Levi and he married within his tribe. In the next parsha (6:20) we will learn both of his parents’ names, his father’s parentage and names of additional Levite households and their descendants, although his sister Miriam will not be mentioned by name until many chapters later (15:20).

In this parsha Moses encounters the burning bush and the voice in the bush informs him:  “I am the G-d of your father’s house, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob.”  But Moses wants to know G-d’s name, and G-d tells him:  “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” I am that I am, or I will be what I will be.  “This shall be my name forever; this how I am to be remembered for all eternity.” (3:14-15)

Names are important to us.  Sometimes we are weary of the genealogies in our Torah; sometimes the yizkor list at High Holidays seems to drag on forever, but it is one of Judaism’s great gifts to us that we tell and retell our ancestral stories.  We especially remember those who were dear to us at a yahrzeit or yizkor.  We would not be who or where we are if it were not for them.

Our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is said to have cherished and revered his Hasidic ancestors; as a child he memorized the names of 250 relatives dating back to the fifteenth century.  We can only imagine how those memories, and the sense of continuity that they provided, helped to sustain him and his faith after his world was so brutally shattered by the Shoah.

May we each be gifted with a good name, with loving memories of those who have gone before us, and with opportunities to pass on their values to our descendants.

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