The last parashah for 2018 is the first parashah of the Bible’s second book, Sefer Shmot, known in English translation as the Book of Exodus. As is the tradition, the book’s first weekly section also goes by the same name: Shmot. You will find it in Exodus 1:1-6:1.
Sefer Shmot is a very different kind of book than Genesis. Genesis is about individuals’ lives within our Jewish family. As such, we often feel connected to Genesis’ characters in very personal ways. The book is so personal that non-Jews also feel connected to Genesis’ personages.
Genesis hides nothing from us, as is the case in any family we know the characters and then wonder what we do not know. As in life, no one really ever knows another person. In Genesis, we travel the gamut of human emotions: from love to anger, from frustration to pride. The Torah’s first book teaches us to take the bitter with the sweet, to tolerate human differences, and to understand that love means learning to start over. In that sense, Genesis is less about the beginning of creation but rather more about the understanding that creation is composed of multiple beginnings.
Although at first glance it appears that the Torah’s second book begins where the first one left off, we soon see that it is a very different type of book. Although it has several important central characters such as, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Pharaoh, we learn that this is a book in which the “nation to be born” occupies the central role. Exodus is no longer about a single family, but rather that family’s transformation from a mere clan into a nation.
Read on a deeper level, Exodus is very different from Genesis. Its characters are no longer single players but rather part of a team. In Exodus, women no longer are passive players but active characters in the national narrative. Characters such as Puah and Shiphra, Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter not only play an essential role in the birth of a nation, but are very much part of a people’s will to survive.
Perhaps nothing better underlines this idea that the book’s very name. Sefer Shmot means the Book of Names. Is Shmot teaching us that we are never truly free if we do not have a name? Exodus begins with slavery, with our being ha’ivriim (the Hebrews) rather than as individuals. The text calls us by a collective name rather than as individuals. From the Inquisitors’ bonfires to the fires of the Holocaust, dehumanization has come about by depriving humans of their names. Slaves are not asked their name, but rather their masters give them a name. It is the master’s role to deprive the slaves of his or her sense of dignity, to take away the slave’s sense of self, and to force the person to live in an eternal present.
From this perspective, Exodus is not about leaving Egypt, as the English translation would mislead us to believe, but rather about going into the freedom of Sinai. Is that the reason that the word used is Midbbar (wilderness) a word related to the word midabber (speaking)? Is the text teaching us that to be free one must be able to speak one’s mind? Exodus understands, perhaps better than any other piece of literature that slavery dawns when the right to speak freely dies.
Sinai taught us that free men and women, collectively only merge into a people by first learning who they are, desiring to be free, and seeing themselves as they really are. To be free is to find dignity in our names, to recognize our past and to have hopes for our future. Might this be the reason that this, the world’s most powerful book of liberation begins with names? What do you think?
Youtubes of the week:
Songs of Exodus
Louis Armstorng: Let My People Go
Exodus as interpreted by Bob Marley
The Modern Exodus Song