“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” For the Israelites, enslaved by the people who years before had welcomed, even honoured, them, one might adapt this nursery rhyme to: “Brick making may be back breaking , but our names will help preserve us.” “V’eileh shemot, these are the names of Israel’s sons who came to Egypt with Jacob…” This reiteration of their identities opens the Book of Names, just as the last word of the Book of Genesis is “b’mitzraim, in Egypt”. The first book of the Torah emerges from the divine, unknown vastness, as God fashions the world, which is also vast in its own way for us much more limited humans. It ends in a specific place, Egypt, which by the beginning of Exodus has enslaved the family of Jacob. The naming of this family preserves a dignity which would otherwise be destroyed and reminds us of other preceding names: Leah and Rachel, Isaac and Rebecca, Abraham and Sarah. Thus, the promises made by God to the patriarchs and matriarchs are preserved,
Bereshit ends, in one way, on a good note. The brothers are reconciled with Joseph, who is Viceroy in Egypt. The family has been given choice land to live in and seems safe. Yet it also ends with two deaths, first Jacob’s and then Joseph’s. Shemot starts with the family’s descendants oppressed and miserable, but it also starts with a birth of a baby who will grow up and be given a task to lead the people out of slavery. There is a sort of model of Jewish history in the few pages which cover these events. Settlement and security are followed by persecution and apparent hopelessness, but a glimmer of hope, of courage and of righteous behaviour point to a better future. We will not be beaten down. After all, we have names, memory and promise.
Our next service promises to be an excellent opportunity to share some memories and embark on an amazing journey together, all the more so as we will be led by Harvey Kurzfield. Come along at 10.30 to be part of this.