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Parashat Shemot

January 12, 2012

By Professor Jerome Chanes

The opening chapters of the Book of Exodus relate a narrative that is strange, not in its story, but in its telling; it is a book that begins V’eleh shemot, “And these are the names . . .,” but there are no names! There are names of the Jacob’s family who came down to Egypt, but the individuals centrally involved in the story of this book are not identified by name. We know all the characters, Yocheved and Miriam and Amram and Pharaoh’s daughter-but no one is named in the text (for example: “And a son of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi . . .”). Most striking, the little boy has no name. His mother does not name him; Pharaoh’s daughter finally, the second time around, does name him, as “Moses.”

In fact, our hero has no name.

What the Book of Exodus is about a people who have no “name”-no identity. We once did, and indeed in Chapter 1, when we came to Egypt, we came as “ish u-veito“-we had a name and a “house.” It is noteworthy that in Chapter 1, only two people have names: Shifra and Pu`ah. Not only did they have names, but the Torah relates that because they “feared God,” they receive houses (1:21). This is a strange verse indeed, and it is precisely those verses that seem strange to which we must pay attention. Not so strange, in fact, when we realize that this idea becomes the construct for the next several chapters, in which the goal is to establish the “bayit“-which we encountered in Genesis with Jacob, the community.

Chapter 1, from the very first verse, makes the point well: in order to be able to build a bayit, a “house,” a community, you have to know who you are. In slavery, you have no identity; you are an object. We lost our name. What enabled the midwives to do the right thing is that they had an identity.

This small point in Chapter 1 prefigures Moses’ task in Egypt. In Chapter 2 no one has a name. It is Moses’ job to give these people a “name.” Moses’ mission is not to bring them to the Land; it is to create a people. The difficulty for Moses is that before he can give them their “name” he has first to find his own “name.” Moses has first to learn who is “Moses.” He has no identity himself. The narrative in the opening chapters of Exodus is about a man searching for his father. It is not until the story of the sneh, the burning bush, that he discovers who his father is. Is Moses’ father (a) his biological father Amram, unnamed in the story, and conspicuously absent? Is it (b) Jethro, his father-in-law and first teacher? Is it (c) Pharaoh, his adoptive father? As the Ramban beautifully explains, the correct answer is (d): “And God said to Moses, ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’.” Moses-having uttered the Covenantal “Hineini“-“Here I am, no matter what!” – is given, at that point, a “father”-Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses is given an identity. He can now engage his task of giving his people a sense of who they are, and of establishing a “bayit,” a community.

The first two chapters of Exodus set up the remainder of Sefer Shemot. The next parashah, Va’era (chapter 6:14-26), has a partial catalogue of names, namely rashei B’nei Yisrael, the “heads of Israel,” which sets up the narrative that follows, that of the moftim and the makkot, the “signs” of Moses and Aaron and the plagues. This may be the most important section of Va’era. We must always pay attention to lists of names and to genealogies; that’s where the story lies. The catalogue of names in Va’era clearly demonstrates a people that are just beginning to have a “name,” that is coming to know its identity. But it’s yet a long way off, and it’s only a partial list.

If the Book of Genesis is about family-building, then Exodus is about community-building, the precursor to nation-building. Sefer Shemot is the only truly happy book of the Humash. The narrative of Sefer Shemot begins, in our parashah, with no “names,” and ends with the building of the Mishkan-God’s place, God’s bayit-the visible and spiritual symbol of Hebrew peoplehood and nationhood. Ending as Shemot does with the building of the Mishkan, the circle, begun with Ish u-veito, “a person and his house,” is completed.


Professor Jerome Chanes, the author of many books, book-chapters, and articles on Jewish public affairs and history, has been an AJR faculty member. He dedicates this D’var Torah in commemoration of the Yahrzeiten of his father, Manuel Simcha Chanes; of his great-grandfather, Rabbi Moses Weinreb of Czernowitz and Brownsville; and in memory of Harvey Israelton.