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February 13, 2014

Parashat Va-Eira
Jerome Chanes

Parashat Va-Eira is one of the parashiyot that transition Sefer Bereishit to Sefer Shemot. The very last word in the Book of Genesis is “Mitzrayim,” Egypt, and the point is made, immediately, that the exile has begun. In order to understand Va-Eira, we need to return to Shemot, in which the nature of our exile is explored.

Sefer Shemot is a book whose narrative begins, “And these are the names . . .,” but there are no names! The unnamed couple who have an unnamed baby under the reign of the unnamed Pharaoh whose unnamed daughter pulls him out of the Nile and, at some point, names him. In fact, our hero has no name.

So in chapter two, which is where the narrative begins, we know all the characters-Yocheved and Miriam and Amram and Pharaoh’s daughter-but no one is named in the text. Very striking in our Humash, which is obsessed with names: the genealogies, the careful identification of ancestry. Names are important. But here, in the key narrative,davka no one is named.

What Sefer Shemot is about, is a people who have no “name”-no identity. They once did, and indeed in Chapter one, a preamble to Exodus, a transition from the Book of Genesis, which is about family conflict and family reconciliation and ultimately about naming-in Chapter one, when we came to Egypt, we came as “ish uveito,” (“every man and his house”). We had a “name,” an identity, and we had a “house,” a metaphor for community.  It is noteworthy that in Chapter one only two people have names: Shifra and Pu’ah. Not only did they have names, but the Torah relates, in a strange pasukindeed (Exodus 1:21), that because they “feared God,” they received houses. This is a very weird pasuk. 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, the “bayit,” becomes the construct for the next several chapters in which the goal, realized only at the end ofSefer Shemot, is to establish the “bayit,” the community.

Chapter one, from the very first verse, makes the point well: in order to be able to build 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 (probably not Hebrews) to do the right thing is that they had an identity.

If there is one issue at the beginning of the Book of Exodus it is identity. But what do we find in our parashahVa-Eira, in chapter six? A genealogy, a list of names, but it is unlike any other genealogy in the Humash. Genealogies are of crucial importance in theHumash; they alert us to significant developments in the narrative. And in Va-Eira, the genealogy of Benai Yisrael, from 6:14, begins with Reuven and Shimon, continues with Levi, and then it stops. Where are the other tribes? The missing genealogy in chapter six connects the reader to chapter two, where the Humash goes out of its way to conceal the names. In the chapter six genealogy, verses 16-25 give us a full description of the Levite family, a full explanation.  At this point Moses, who was introduced to his “father” at theseneh (the bush)-“I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”-knows fully who his family is, and who he is. The text is telling Moshe, in effect, “You are a covenantal child.”  Moses has an identity, and his job now is to tell Benai Yisrael who they are, to give them an identity.

Sefer Shemot is the only truly happy book of the Humash.  Shemot is a book that begins with no names, no identity, and ends with the building of the Mishkan, God’s bayit, the full expression of Jewish identity and community.


Jerome Chanes is a long-time faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses on Modern Jewish History, Zionism, and Anti-Semitism.