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Todd Berman

Shemot and the IDF – names not numbers

Starting a new book is an exciting event. Exodus, called “Shemot” or “names” in Hebrew, begins, surprisingly, by reminding us who went down to Egypt:

(1) And these are the names of the sons of Yisrael who came to Egypt with Yaakov; each man and his household came. (2) Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehuda, (3) Yissachar, Zevulun, and Binyamin, (4) Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher. (5) All the people who descended from Yaakov’s loins were seventy people, but Yosef was in Egypt.

The repetition appears like the Torah is recapping the story in a fashion familiar to modern television series. Does the Torah think we forgot what happened during the two-week break from reading the part of the tale when Jacob and their sons came to Egypt? Do we need a reminder before the action continues? What function does the recap serve?

If we look at the opening of Shemot, we are confronted with two pieces that seem to share a common element. Analyzing these two sections may give us a deeper appreciation for the opening lines.

The first aliyah contains two parts. The first one we mentioned above is the recap. The second begins with the death of Joseph and demographic information.

(6) Yosef and all his brothers, and that entire generation died. (7) The sons of Yisrael were fruitful and swarmed, and multiplied, and grew very, very mighty; the land was filled with them. (8) A new king who did not know Yosef rose over Egypt.

The verbs used here seem surprising. “Swarmed and multiplied” are more reminiscent of vermin than humans. Something appears amiss with the growth of the Jewish people.

The Torah subsequently informs us that Pharoah died, and a new one who forgot that Joseph saved the land arose. Rashi suggests we can read this literally or figuratively:

“A new king rose” – Rab and Samuel differed in their interpretation of these words. One said he was physically a new king; the other said he was the same king but made new edicts.

At this point, the text confronts us with the stereotypical rise of antisemitism. The rabbinic notion beloved and expanded by exegetes like Ramban suggests that “the events of the patriarchs are a sign for their descendants.” What befell our ancestors can be seen as models for our history. The increasing population of the Jews and their prosperity caused the Egyptians psychological panic. The reaction appears irrational when we consider the massive size of the Egyptian empire. What about the success of a small minority instills fear in the Egyptians? The king’s reaction is telling:

(9) He said to his people, “Behold, the people, the Children of Israel, are more and mightier than we.” (10) Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and when war occurs, they also join our enemies and fight against us, and go up from the land.

What motivates this existential fear of war? Why would Pharaoh fear that the Children of Israel, a tiny minority, would overpower or even desire to attack the Egyptians? If the king fears the Israelites, wouldn’t the best course of action be to allow them to “go up from the land?” Some suggest that “go up” should be understood as “go on top of the land,” meaning conquer Egypt. The claim seems so absurd to border on irrational paranoia.

Instead of kicking the Jews out, Pharaoh goes on to pass antisemitic laws and restrictions. He enslaves the Jews, hoping to satiate his lust for harming the Jews. When these programs ultimately fail, he then resorts to genocide.

Reading the text closely, we see a theme present itself.

(12) As they would oppress them, so would they multiply, and so they would spread out. They were filled with loathing because of the Children of Israel.

The more the Jews increase in number, the more they are hated. The verb for hate used here is “VaYakutzu,” which means disgusted. The Egyptians viewed the Jews as a massive group like ants crawling on a hill. The mass has no name, but like vermin, the sheer bulk of people disgusts the good Egyptians.

The focus on numbers, even seemingly irrationally, links to the book’s opening.

The opening lines, as mentioned above, at first blush seem to be redundant. We know which sons of Jacob went down to Egypt. Rashi suggests that the repetition serves a critical purpose:

“And these are the names of the sons of Yisrael” – Although scripture had already enumerated them by name while 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 God brings out and brings in by number and name when they cease to shine, as it is said, (Isaiah 40:26) “He brings out their host by number, He calls them all by name.”

Pharoah “forgot” Joseph. The Egyptians don’t see names, only numbers, an indistinguishable multitude. They don’t see people but a mass. This dehumanization stokes fear and enables atrocities. God, however, sees each. Every person counts and is as precious to God as are the stars whose names God also knows. The haters see numbers. God sees people.

One of the peculiar realities in modern warfare is what is known as the rule of distinction or discrimination. The accepted rule in War Ethics demands that armies distinguish civilians from enemy combatants. Warring parties must refrain from harming civilians, when possible, whereas soldiers are legitimate targets. Combatants must treat civilians as individuals – as humans. Soldiers, on the other hand, are often seen as a mass of unnamed uniforms – numbers in a crowd.

However, in Israel, we can’t relate to our soldiers as a giant amalgam of bodies. Each person lost or harmed in battle is an individual. Each is a son or daughter, a friend or brother, a father or mother, a precious soul with a name and a life stolen in war. Every person in Israel knows a victim or family harmed – my next-door neighbor, Roey Weiser, was a hero who acted as a decoy to save others and was the life of the party; my daughter’s high-school Talmud teacher, Yinon Fleishman, was a loving young father and educator; boys who grew up and played together are buried one next to the other, one; Eitan Rosenzweig, was an artist who loved to learn in yeshiva but felt it his duty to defend his people. These young men were friends, family, and neighbors. We could go on and on and on, listing each one. Indeed, the Ministry of Defense maintains a searchable database containing names and information about each soldier.  Each fallen soldier has a name; they had hopes and dreams, promises never to be fulfilled.

In a powerful scene from the American television show The West Wing, Leo McGary, the White House Chief of Staff, powerfully informs the president how Israel commemorates Memorial Day by broadcasting the names of every soldier killed in action. Like the stars, each one has their place.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians saw the children of Israel as vermin, not individuals but a group. Antisemites always see us as numbers – this explains so much of what the Nazis did in the Holocaust, from forcing Jews to wear identifiable clothing all the way down to shaving people’s heads. For God and the Jewish people, each life is precious.

It’s apropos that our book is called Shemot or “names” in Hebrew. Every person is worthy of having a name and not a number.

Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt to escape famine and ensure the future of the Jewish people. Our soldiers who fought and died protecting the future of Am Yisrael, in a way, represent a new book of names.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.