Parshas Shemos: The Book of Names

Sefer Shemos, literally “The Book of Names,” begins with the words: וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה: אֵת יַעֲקֹב, אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ, and these are the names of the children of Israel, who were coming to Egypt, Yaakov, each man and his household came: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehuda; Yisachar, Zevulun, and Binyanim; Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher… and Yosef  was in Egypt (Shemos 1:1-5).

The opening to the book of Shemos is information the Torah has already made known to us in Sefer Bereishis, as the pasuk says: וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי שְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרַיְמָה, יַעֲקֹב וּבָנָיו: בְּכֹר יַעֲקֹב, רְאוּבֵן, and these are the names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt, Yaakov and his sons, the firstborn of Yaakov was Reuven (Bereishis 46:8).  The Torah then proceeds to delineate the families of Yaakov that came down to Egypt. 

As we open the book of Shemos, and we learn about the painful and oppressive shibud Mitzrayim (Egyptian enslavement), why does the Chumash begin with the emphasis on names, and then proceed to enumerate each of the names of the sons of Yaakov?

R’ Yitzchok Zilberstein teaches, “וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת, and these are the names: The holy Shelah (ישעיה בן אברהם הלוי הורוויץ, named after his famous work, the שני לוחות הברית, d.1630, buried in Tiberias, Israel) instructs that after Shemoneh Esrei, an individual should recite a verse (from Tanach) that begins with the first letter of his name and ends with the last letter of his name.  (For illustrative purposes, my first name is מיכל, and the corresponding pasuk, which begins with a mem and ends with a lamed, is: מַהטֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל [Bamidbar 24:5].)  This is a segulah that protects a person from forgetting his name when he will ultimately stand before the Heavenly Court, after his passing.

“The Nimukei Ridvaz explains that it is common practice for criminals to be identified by a number, instead of their name.  This suggests that the criminal is no longer worthy of being considered a person and being called by a name.  Similarly, the Ridvaz continues, regarding a person whose heart turns away from Hashem, the Torah warns that וּמָחָה האֶת שְׁמוֹ, Hashem will erase his name (Devarim 29:19).  In other words, Hashem will strip the sinner of his name and refer to him instead by his crime or misdeed.  

“This idea is also expressed in Tehillim (109:13-14), which states: Let their name be erased; may the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before Hashem, and the sin of his mother not be erased.  Rather than being remembered by their name, evildoers are remembered by the name of the sin they committed.  By remembering our names on the future day of judgement, we demonstrate that we are worthy of being called by a name, not by a number or by the name of a sin” (Aleinu L’Shabei’ach, Shemos, p.31-32).

With this teaching in mind, and the significance of a person’s name, perhaps we can propose another reason that the second book of Torah is known as Shemos, “Names,” and that the sefer begins by listing the names of the Children of Israel who descended to Egypt.

It is in the first perek (chapter) of Shemos that we learn of the terrible, back breaking labor which the Israelite slaves were subjected to.  The Egyptians financially oppressed them, forced them into slave labor, oppressed them with torturous work, and ultimately, killed their sons.  The labor was so futile and demeaning, that it was meant only to break the slaves (Rashi to Ex.1:13), both in body and spirit.  The infanticide was meant to erase any future vestige of Am Yisrael: וַיֹּאמֶר, בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶתהָעִבְרִיּוֹת, וּרְאִיתֶן, עַלהָאָבְנָיִם: אִםבֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ, וְאִםבַּת הִוא וָחָיָה, and Pharaoh said to the midwives: when you birth the Hebrews, and you will see upon the birthing stool, if it is a boy, you shall put him to death, and if it is a girl, she shall live (Shemos 1:16).

In an environment such as this one, when the enemy tries to strip the slave of his very essence and humanity, it is possible for the tortured, exhausted, and broken slave to think of himself as a mere number, and forget that he ever had a name… To counter this, the story of the shibud Mitzrayim begins with the following words: וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – and these are the NAMES of the children of Israel.  

No matter what the enemy does to try to destroy us, we remember that we always have a pure, untainted, untouchable essence – the neshama and spirit of a Jew – and it is that very spirit that is represented in our names.  For though in each and every generation they arise to destroy us, the names, the Shemos, of the Bnei Yisrael, are eternal.

One summer, during his stay in the Catskill Mountains, R’ Moshe Feinstein zt’l was being seen by a doctor and his wife, a nurse, both of whom were Holocaust survivors.  The pair was far removed from the world of yeshivos, and only knew that their patient was a famous rabbi.  One day, the nurse said to her nephew, Yitzchak Herschkopf, who had come to visit, “We have one patient who is a celebrity.  His name is Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.  He has an appointment tomorrow, would you like to meet him?”  

Yitzchak, who had learned under R’ Moshe’s son-in-law, R’ Moshe Tendler, was excited beyond words.  The next day, he donned his Shabbos clothing and seated himself in the doctor’s waiting room.  A few minutes later, R’ Moshe entered, accompanied by a family member.  The nurse – Yitzchak’s aunt – came to receive R’ Moshe.  She spoke to him as if they were close friends, in an affectionate – but wholly inappropriate – manner.  

As soon as she left the room, Yitzchak began to apologize for his aunt’s behavior.  R’ Moshe quickly put his finger to the boy’s lips to silence him and said, “She has numbers on her arm,” he said softly, “she is holier than I am” (Reb Moshe, Artscroll, p.266-267).

As you suffer through the pain and tribulations of galus, the Chumash tells us, and as the enemy – from Pharaonic Egypt to Nazi Germany R”L – tries mightily to remove our identity from us, never, ever forget: these are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt.  

For our identity, our names, our essence, and our souls, can never be extinguished or destroyed. 

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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