Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 142

January 13, 2023 (20 Tevet 5783)

A Good Name

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you well and in good cheer. Please join us in our beautiful sanctuary this Saturday morning for Shabbat services, which will commence at 10:30am and be available on our regular Zoom prayer link. Last Shabbat we concluded the book of Genesis with the traditional wishes of Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazak (let us be resolutely strong and strengthen one and other), and this Shabbat we jump into the second book of the Torah, Sefer Shemot.

The parasha begins with the verse: וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה And these are the names of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt.

As is typically the case in textual analysis, the rabbinic commentators ask deep questions regarding the usage of specific words and terminologies in each sentence of the Torah text. Through these questions and answers, we are encouraged to absorb valuable life lessons, both particularistic (Jewish themes) and universalistic (themes regarding the human condition).

For this initial sentence of the text there are two questions asked, one by the 11th century French commentator, Rashi, and one by the exegetical compilation entitled Midrash Aggada.

Rashi is perplexed by the repetition of the names of the descendants, who migrated to Mitzrayim (Egypt). In fact, he asks rhetorically, if we have just listed those names at the end of last week’s reading, why would the parsimonious text repeat them here? Answering his own question, he offers the following: Although scripture has already enumerated them by name while they were living, when they went down into Egypt (Genesis 46:8-27), it enumerated them again when it tells us of their death, thus showing how dear they were to God. They are compared to the stars, which God also brings out and brings in by number and name when they cease to shine.

From a Jewish perspective, Rashi’s answer underscores the poignancy of our conception of the Divine as a compassionate and caring creator/partner. HaShem is deeply invested in our personal journeys from the day we arrive on earth, throughout the various chapters of our existence. Each name and individual is but a manifestation of B’Tselem Elokim, the image of God. In naming us, both in life and posthumously, we are taught of the covenantal bond that pre-exists and succeeds our earthly presence.

From a universal perspective, I believe the answer reminds us of our ability to keep the memories of our loved ones alive, by sharing the treasure chest we have of personal stories of our parents, grandparents and loved ones. No doubt, if you are like me, you grew up hearing stories about your grandparents, who immigrated, and your great grandparents of the old country and their trials, tribulations, and triumphs. These stories, even if romanticized, connect us to family, faith, tradition, and more.

In a second text, the Midrash Aggada is confused by the reference to the children of Jacob coming to Egypt. Afterall, were they not already there, as is explained in last week’s text?

אלא כל זמן שהיה יוסף קיים לא היה עליהם משאן של מצרים, כיון שמת יוסף והלך לבית עולמו, ניתן משאן של מצריים עליהם, לכך נאמר הבאים מצרימה, כאלו היום באו

To paraphrase, the Midrash teaches that we should understand that the entire time that Yosef was alive the Hebrews had a perfect relationship with the Egyptians, but when Yosef passed, the relationship dramatically shifted. The Egyptians’ lack of acknowledgement of Jewish contribution, led to their perception of the Hebrews as the other.

From a particularistic perspective, the Midrash is sharing that our Jewish communal stability in Egypt was based on a specific relationship and that once that relationship concluded, a reinvention and recalibration needed to occur. It is our sensitivities to the relational component of being a minority community that can offer us safety and security, whether in Egypt thousands of years ago, or today in contemporary society.

From a universalistic perspective, I believe that the Midrash offers us pause to consider the concept of politics and coalitions. To borrow from two current examples, I question the wisdom of both Prince Harry’s memoir, which offers a frank, if one-sided, look at his life, showing him at odds with Prince William and detailing other family rifts, as well as the confounding political process playing out in Israel’s attempts to create yet another questionable coalition. The Midrash reminds us that in all realms of life, we must work together, not burn bridges, and always look at the positive potentialities of others, while not compromising our personal and religious values.

May this Shabbat of Shemot offer us the opportunity to continue to make a good name for ourselves, for our community, for our congregation, and for the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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