This week’s פרשה, and ספר שמות, open several generations after the end of the previous one, and tells us of the terrible transformation in the Jewish people’s standing in Egypt- having gone from a relatively successful and separate family within a foreign land to being enslaved by their host country. However, before describing the physical and spiritual holocaust that the Egyptians inflicted on the children of Israel, the תורה first introduces the story with a short prologue: “ואלה שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה- These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt.” Why does the תורה need to remind us of the names of the children of Yaakov, especially since an extensive list of Yaakov’s descendants was written in the previous פרשה? Furthermore In the previous פרשה, we were given an extensive list of all of Yaakov’s children and grandchildren-here, after the “long break,” we are just told of Yaakov’s children- not his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Why does the פרשה open with “ואלה שמות בני ישראל… איש וביתו באו,” and then only list the first generation under יעקב?
Ramban, learning a pshat interpretation, teaches that the repetition of Yaakov’s descendants is a prologue to the second ספר of the חמישה חומשי תורה, opening where the previous narrative left off in ויחי- listing the descendants of יעקב. Ramban’s idea, while interesting, does not explain the subtle differences in the amount of generations under Yaakov that are listed here vs. those which are listed in ויחי.
Sforno, learning into this difference, explains that the reason lies in the attitude of Yaakov’s descendants towards resisting the influence of Egypt. He teaches that the reason that Yaakov’s children are listed at the beginning of פרשת שמות is because they, like Yaakov, were able to resist the corruptive atmosphere and culture of Egypt, and therefore merited to be listed with Yaakov at the beginning of the פרשה. Their children-Yaakov’s grandchildren, however, were not able to maintain the spiritual grandeur of their forebears, so while they were listed in ויחי as being offspring of יעקב, they did not merit to be listed with his descendants in this prologue to the story of the enslavement in Egypt. Sforno teaches that the chronicles of Yaakov at the end of ספר בראשית are a list of all of Yaakov’s descendants while the שמות at the beginning of ספר שמות are a list of those who lived up to Yaakov’s heritage and merited to be listed with him.
In a similar vein, there is an interesting pattern in the first paragraph of ספר שמות- the words “בני ישראל” are used to both start the פרשיה/paragraph (“ואלה שמות בני ישראל”) and end it (“ובני ישראל פרו וישרצו”), leaving us to wonder why there is an emphasis on “the children of Israel.” Rav Yonatan Grossman, a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion and a parsha structure expert, answers in an article on the Virtual Bet Midrash that this פרשה serves as a transition from בני ישראל, the children of Israel, a large family sent into exile by a strong famine, to בני ישראל, the oppressed Jewish nation which is redeemed by G-d Himself. The first בני ישראל, whose story was developed in ספר בראשית from the beginning of the world, through generations of ‘chosen one’s being selected until the 12 tribes’ descent to Egypt, has ended in this first paragraph of ספר שמות, giving way to a new creation- the “Nation of Israel.” This transformation, helped by “ובני ישראל פרו וישרצו וירבו מאד,” leads to the panic of פרעה and the other מצרים, as פרעה pronounces “עם בני ישראל רב ועצום ממנו- The Nation of Israel is too numerous and strong for us.” These are the true transition from ספר בראשית to ספר שמות: the national transition of Yaakov’s descendants from בני ישראל into עם בני ישראל and the spiritual transition of the national leadership of בני ישראל, from lofty leaders like יעקב אבינו and the י”ב שבטים to one of the most humble leaders and prophets of G-d, משה רבינו, whose birth is the climax of the prologue to ספר שמות- the beginning of the גאולה.
The question we need to ask ourselves is; what are these ideals of their forefathers that the emerging nation of Israel needed to strive to follow? This question can be answered by looking at a deceptively simple פסוק in Yeshayahu: “עַם-זוּ יָצַרְתִּי לִי, תְּהִלָּתִי יְסַפֵּרוּ”(ישעיהו מ”ג:כ”א)- The Nation that I’ve created [was created to] tell of My praise.” This is the lesson of the beginning of the nation of Israel, from Yaakov, to his children, to their descendants- that we, the chosen nation, were created to serve G-d and “tell of His praise.” This inherent command, very applicable no matter where the Jewish people are, is especially relevant to the Jews who are still in the גלות- they, surrounded by the impurity of a corrupt society not unlike Egypt, have a directive passed down through the generations; to emerge from the טומאה of their surroundings by serving G-d. If we, in the newly begun year 2013, can follow this, then with Hashem’s help, by 1 January 2014 we will have brought the end of our suffering and the continuation of the גאולה. Shabbat Shalom