Knowing Who You Are
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Sabbath Week

Knowing Who You Are

Jerome Chanes
Jerome Chanes

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat candles: 4:41 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 1:1-6:1
Haftorah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23 (Ashkenaz); Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Havdalah: 5:43 p.m.

The opening chapters of Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus) relate a narrative that is strange; not in the story, familiar to all of us from childhood, but in its telling. The book begins “And these are the names” [Exodus 1:1], but there are no names! There is an unnamed couple who have an unnamed baby under the reign of an unnamed Pharaoh whose unnamed daughter pulls the still unnamed baby out of the river and — at some point—names him.

Chapter 1 is a preamble, setting the historical context. Aside from who had already come into Egypt (Jacob and his eleven sons, aside from Joseph), we are told the names only of two midwives. Ten sentences into Chapter 2, we’ve met the central characters, but still no names. Very striking in our Chumash, which is obsessed with names: the mind-numbing genealogies, the careful identification of ancestry.  Names are central! But here, in a foundational narrative, no one is named.

Chapter 2 begins, “And a son of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi,” who has a son, but most striking, the baby — the hero of Exodus — has no name. His father does not name him. His mother does not name him, as was often the case in the Sefer Bereshit (Genesis). Instead, Pharaoh’s daughter names him.

The Book of Exodus is about a people who have no “name”—no identity. They once did, and indeed in Chapter 1 (the transition from the Book of Genesis, which is about family conflict, reconciliation and ultimately about naming) we came to Egypt “ish ubeito” (“each person with his house”). We had a “name,” an identity, a “house,” a metaphor for family and community. It is noteworthy that in Chapter 1, midwives Shifra and Pu’ah not only have names but because they “feared God,” they received houses [Ex. 1:21]. It seems strange, but Rabbi David Silber notes that it is not so strange when we realize that this idea — the “bayit,” the house — becomes the construct for the next several chapters in which the goal (realized only at the end of Exodus — is to establish the “bayit,” the Tabernacle, God’s house—the community.

Chapter 1, from the very first verse, makes the point well: in order to be able to build a “house” — a community — you have to know who you are. In slavery, you have no identity; you are an object. You lose your name. What enabled the midwives to do the right thing is that they had an identity.

This prefigures Moses’ task in Egypt. In Chapter 2 no one has a name; it is Moses’ job to give these people a “name.”  Moses’ mission is not to bring them to the Land; it is to create a people. The difficulty for Moses is that before he can give them their “name,” their identity, he has first to find his own “name,” his own identity. Moses first has to learn who is “Moses?” The narrative in the opening chapters of Exodus is about a man searching for his father. It’s all “shrink-time.” It is not until the story of the Sneh—the Burning Bush—in Chapter 3 that he discovers who his father is. Is it (a) his biological father Amram, unnamed in the story, and conspicuously absent? Is it (b) Yitro (Jethro), his father-in-law and first teacher? Is it (c) Pharaoh, his adoptive father? As the Ramban beautifully explains, the correct answer is (d): God says to Moses, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” [Ex. 3:6]. As Rabbi Silber teaches, Moses is given, at that point, a “father” — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and an identity. He can now engage his task of giving his people a sense of who they are, and of establishing a “bayit,” a community.

The first two chapters of Exodus set up the remainder of Sefer Shemot. Next week, Va’era has a partial catalogue of names [Ex. 6:14-25], which sets up the narrative that follows, that of the Ten Plagues. We must pay attention to lists of names and genealogies; that is where the story lies. (Moses’ father and mother are not named until this genealogy in Exodus 6:20.) Here are a people just beginning to know its “name,” but identity is yet a long way off, and the list of names is only partial.

What do we learn from parashat Shmot? This week’s portion sets up the Book of Exodus. If Genesis is about family-building, then Exodus is about community building, the precursor to nation-building. Exodus is the only truly happy book of the Chumash. The Exodus narrative begins with no “names,” no personal or communal identity, no peoplehood, and ends with the building of the Mishkan: God’s place, God’s bayit (home), the visible and spiritual symbol of Hebrew peoplehood and ultimately nationhood.  Ending as Exodus does with the building of the Mishkan, the circle, begun with “ish ubeito” (“each person with his house”) is completed. 

Jerome Chanes, author of books on Jewish public affairs, history and arts and letters, is senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center. His current project is a book on Israeli theater. 

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