This week’s parsha begins with the phrase,ואלא שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה, “these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Mitzrayim”. Since the arrival of the bnei yisrael in Mitzrayim was already mentioned only six chapters before this one, it seems superfluous to repeat the idea as if was never stated.
Why does the Torah have to say this here?
The Ramban explains that this first verse in Shemos is actually a direct continuation from the topic begun earlier in Bereishis. There, we are told that, “Israel dwelled in the land of Mitzrayim, in the land of Goshen. They had a portion in it, were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” This sounds very positive. However, the Kli Yakar informs us that the verse is telling us something very negative. Despite the Jews’ original intention to live temporarily in Mitzrayim, i.e. for the duration of the famine, they became so ensconced there that G-d had to forcefully take them out with a “strong hand”.
A few verses later, in Parshas Vayechi, we read that after Yaakov Avinu passed away, the eyes of the Bnei Yisrael “closed” to their own pilght; they became unaware, like the mice in a mine shaft who cannot detect the subtle changes in the quality of the air available to them—until it is too late. What does this mean? It means that the golus Mitzrayim (the Egyptian exile) began way before a “new king arose in Mitzrayim” and enslaved the Jews; it began when everything was prosperous. But the eyes of Israel being closed also implies that whatever happened during the 210 years after the twelve tribes arrival in Mitzrayim was essentially tangential.
The Ramban refers to the book of Shemos as Sefer Galus v’Geulah—the book of exile and redemption. Not simply, “Exodus”, which refers only to leaving Egypt, but also geulah, being redeemed. It’s not enough to leave; you have to be redeemed. Leaving Egypt did not make us free. We did not only gain freedom from the enslavement of Egypt; we went towards the awesome responsibility of being servants of Hashem.
Exile, says the Ramban, would not be concluded until the Jews returned to their place and to the spiritual level of the forefathers. This was achieved through the milestones of Har Sinai and the building of the Mishkan, which created the context for an indwelling of the Shechinah. True redemption.
By dint of the fact that this section of the Torah has two names, “Shemos” and “Sefer Galus v’Geulah”, the Ramban is telling us that there is an intrinsic connection between names and redemption.
The Midrash tells us that one of the things that the bnei yisrael did not change while enslaved in Egypt was their names. This continued for the entire 210 year period of their servitude. If you stop to think about this for a second, very few of us can claim that type of Jewish continuity for that length of time, no matter where our families come from. Even in this country, where the language is Hebrew, many people do not have traditional Jewish names.
What is a name?
There are many views on this topic. Here, the words of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlit”a, are precise. The words shem and sham are interrelated. First of all, they have the exact same shoresh—even the same letters. What is the difference between sham and shem? We use the word sham to indicate where something is located or contained. In fact, the word shamayim is simply a plural form of the word sham; shamayim is the ultimate sham, the totality of sham. There can be no more sham-ness than the seemingly endless shamayim. Shem, on the other hand, is a word that indicates both the content of an item and its purpose.
Consider another word: shomem, which means both astonishing and desolate. When we describe a place in this way, we mean that there is no content and no purpose there; it is the exact opposite of shem. And it just so happens that the word Mitzrayim has the same gematria (numerical value) as the word shomem (380). Later in the parsha, when Paro is first told to release the bnei yisrael so that they could serve G-d, his response is, תכבד את העבודה על האנשים ויעשו בה ואל יעשו בדברי שקר, “increase the workload on these people, and keep them busy, and do not let them busy themselves with falsehood”. As if to say that the prescription for our lives was to be slaves, to work purposelessly for the duration of our miserable lives, without any deeper meaning. That is Mitzrayim. The Ramchal says that Paro’s response is the classic technique of the yetzer hara: keep the guy busy, so busy that he never has time or energy to take stock of his life.
Why was it so important for the bnei yisrael to retain their names?
A name tells us about the essential purpose and mission of the person to whom it belongs. The fact that the Sefer Galus v’Geulah begins with the names teaches us that people of the tribes of Israel, because of their names, were able to remember their mission even in the darkest stages of exile and slavery. The Midrash goes through each name, from Reuven to Binyamin, describing how each relates to the essence of that tribe, its tachlis, and a different aspect of geulah.
This applies each of us. When life seems purposeless, when we do not clearly sense our place in the world, we experience golus , exile, on a personal level. But that name brings us back; it tells us that we are needed in this world, that we each have a mission and a contribution to make. Sometime, a long time ago, we were welcomed into this world by our parents, and they delivered this message to us, the most affirming message possible: we wanted you here, and we have called you by name!
The Midrash tells us that this is precisely how Hashem feels about each one of us. שקולים הם ישראל כצבא השמים נאמר כאן שמות ונאמר בכוכבים שמות שנאמר מונה מספר לכוכבים לכוכם שמות יקרא, “Israel is like the stars in Heaven; here the verse mentions names, and there regarding stars, the verse mentions names”. מנא מספרם כמה היו ולפי שהם משולים לכוכבים קרא שמות לכולם, “He counted how many of them there were, and because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them.” I couldn’t figure out this Midrash; because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them? Are we being told that, just like Hashem knows about each star, He knows about each Jew? There would not be much of a chiddush here; He created everything, after all!
Rather, as Rashi statesלהודיע חבתן שנמשלו לכוכבים שמוציאן ומכניסן במספר ובשמותם שנאמר המוציא במספר צבאם לכלם בשם יקרא, “the Torah tells us here to inform us that we are beloved to Hashem; Israel is compared to the stars, as the verse states, ‘Who takes out the stars by the number of their host, He calls each one by name'”.
Why are stars so important?
The Malbim tells us, regarding that verse in Yeshaya, כל אחד יש לו שם מיוחד על פי פעולתו, “each one has a special name, in accordance with its purpose.” Now, we can understand the comparison, because each one of us has a unique name that hints at the awesome, unique mission each one of us has. And Hashem counts each one of us.
One other point: stars have a special quality of being points of light against the dark background of space. They glow even in the ultimate darkness, all the time. This is like klal yisrael, who, by tapping into the power of a name, are able to find light in the darkest moments, sparks of geulah that remind us that the true geulah is on its way, bimheira v’yameinu amen!