Parashat Shemot 5779
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
“Honoring our beloved ones through their names”
This week we are starting to read the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot. Parashat Shemot starts with these words: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household” (Shemot 1:1). After this, the Torah lists the names of the sons of Jacob.
Many commentators wonder why the book of Shemot starts listing these names considering that the same names were mentioned in the book of Bereshit in chapter 46: “These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt…” (Bereshit 46:8-27).
What is the purpose of listing their names again?
There is an explanation in a Midrash from Shemot Rabbah:
“R. Huna says in the name of Bar Kaparah, for four things the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt, one was for not changing their names (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, Vayikra Rabba 32).” (Shemot Rabbah 1:28)
How do we know that the Israelites didn’t change their names? This midrash based its argument on the listing of the names of the sons of Jacob in Bereshit (chapter 46) and in this week’s parashah from Shemot (chapter1). They left the land of Canaan having certain names, and they kept the same names in Egypt. It shows us that they didn’t exchange their names there for Egyptians names.
According to this Midrash, the reason we have the repetition of the list of names in the book of Shemot is to show us that they kept their identity, despite living in a place with a different culture and customs.
Another Midrash from Shemot Rabbah explains our question in this way:
“’And these are the names…’ Rabbi Abahu said: Whenever the text states ‘These’ (eileh), it comes to contrast the preceding text. ‘And these’ (ve-eileh) connotes addition to the preceding remarks. ‘These are the stories of the heavens and earth’ comes to contrast the ‘chaos and void.’ ‘And these are the names’ comes to add praise to the seventy people (in Jacob’s household that descended into Egypt) mentioned above, in that all of them were righteous.” (Shemot Rabbah 1:2).
This Midrash understands the repetition of the listing of the names as a way of highlighting that all of them were special people, they were righteous.
Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:3 compares the sons of Jacob with the stars:
“And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt, Jacob and his sons, each man and his household came—Israel is comparable to the multitude of the heavens, here it is said names, and it is said of stars names, as it is said (Psalms 147:4): ‘He counteth the number of the stars; He giveth them all their names,’ even the Holy One Blessed is He, when Israel descended to Egypt, counted how many they were, and because they are compared to the stars, He gave them all names, as it is written: ‘And these are the names of the Children of Israel, etc.’”
We can find here a beautiful image of God counting and naming the Israelites when they came to Egypt. It is a way to express his love and concern for them. God counted them but also gave them names, which means that they were not simple numbers to God; they were people with names, with qualities and good deeds.
Rashi, based on this Midrash, says:
“THE NAMES OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL — Although scripture has already enumerated them by name whilst they were living, when they went down into Egypt (Genesis 46:8-27), it again enumerates them when it tells us of their death, thus showing how dear they were to God — that they are compared to the stars which also God brings out and brings in by number and name when they cease to shine, as it is said, (Isaiah 40:26) ‘He bringeth out their host by number, He calleth them all by name’ (Exodus Rabbah 1:3; Tanchuma Yashan 1:1:2).” (Rashi on Shemot 1:1)
Rashi explains the repetition of the names by pointing out that in Bereshit they were listed when the people were living, and in this week’s parashah, they were listed when they were dead, showing how dear they were to God. It means that mentioning their names was a way to express God’s love for them.
Following all of these explanations, we can affirm that it is not a coincidence that we have two lists with the same names. These two lists teach us the importance of honoring our beloved ones by mentioning their names. Pronouncing their names, we point out their virtues, their qualities, and we express our love for them.
Every year, when we read this week’s parashah, we read the same names and we should remember that they were important and righteous people, that they kept their identity despite the adversity they faced, and that they were loved by God. While it might seem to be a boring list of names, it is not. There is a deep and meaningful message behind the list.
In Judaism, one of the ways we honor our beloved ones who passed away is placing a plaque in our synagogues with their names. Besides this, at Temple Beth El on every Shabbat we mention the names of the Yahrzeits of the week of the beloved ones of our congregants before the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish. This is also a beautiful way to honor them, remembering them through their names, their qualities, their good deeds and the lessons they bequeath us. Pronouncing their names and honoring them is a way to keep the memories of our loved ones alive in our hearts.