This Shabbat, we begin the book of Exodus — Shemot or "Names" in Hebrew. Exodus is filled with drama: Moses demands freedom from Pharaoh, the people cross the sea against all odds, celebrating their freedom on the other side. But these events occur later.
Shemot begins in a smaller way, as its title suggests, with names.
It begins by naming Jacob's sons: "These are the names of the sons of Israel …"
What do names and naming have to do with the great human drama of the Exodus? Does the title "Shemot" do justice to this story?
Rashi gives us a hint by quoting the midrash Exodus Rabbah. He writes: "Although [God] counted them in their lifetime by their names, he counted them again after their death, to let us know how precious they are, because they were likened to the stars, which he takes out and brings in by number and by name … "
This midrash imagines God caring so much for each star in the sky that God gives them each a name. So, too, God cared for the sons of Jacob and showed this care through naming.
It is an old habit of Jews to count people with words rather than numbers, a way of affirming their humanity. People are something more than sheep to be counted and categorized. The fact of human dignity demands a name.
It is in this insistence on human dignity, hinted at by naming, that the great liberation of Exodus truly begins. The opposite of liberation, slavery, begins with a lack of names.
The portion tells us that a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph. Suddenly, there is a shift in the text. We assume that the new king did not know Joseph's name, and, therefore, fails to see the humanity of the people.
This is the precursor to their enslavement. It is easier to enslave and oppress people when we don't know their names or choose not to use them.
This coming Monday is Martin Luther King Day, a perfect coincidence with the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Israelites crossing to freedom from Egypt sits alongside the Civil Rights movement in America as two of the greatest stories of non-violent civil disobedience in our collective consciousness.
Martin Luther King's work was a testament to counting people by their names, and, therefore, their humanity. Dr. King believed that no person should be treated as anything less than human.
Shemot, the Torah portion of names, and Dr. King's legacy can both remind us to work in our daily life toward this naming.
It is difficult for humans to care about the distress of distant others. We are much less likely to empathize and respond to people who we don't know by face or name or story.
That is why it is so easy for the world to stand by even during the atrocities of a genocide. Clearly, no one knows this better than the Jews.
In reading Exodus again and in celebrating the life of Dr. King, we are called each year to be namers. The story of the Exodus on a grand scale is about great leadership, faith and the power of God to deliver God's people.
On a small scale, however, it all begins with the importance of calling each other by name, and that is something that each of us can do.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]