In her commentary on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture, Aviva Zornberg focuses in on the beginning of this week’s parasha and its title: Shemot, which means “Names.” The book begins with the names of the individuals who came down to Egypt in Joseph’s generation, his siblings and his father. But these people are all dead by now. And what comes next is a description of the current Israelite community in Egypt, whose population has exploded. “And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Ex 1:7) As Zornberg points out, this generation of Israelites is completely anonymous. Even when Moses is born, we do not learn his parents’ names or his sister’s name.
The children of Israel have become a nation too numerous to know as individuals or to mention by name. In one way, this is gratifying—to see what has become of this people who arrived in Egypt near the point of death. But, as we know, the Pharaoh considers the nameless masses of strangers in his midst a threat, and their sheer numbers frighten him. When we do not know the other, we tend to fear them. This is what leads to discrimination and oppression. Our people have learned this too many times in our history. The Book of Shemot, “Names,” teaches us that namelessness, the walling off of ourselves from our neighbors, can lead to the worst of human behavior.