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Drash on Shemot 2024

Cantor Michel Laloum

Temple Beth israel

The importance of a name

Parashat Shemot opens with a list of all the names of those who went into exile in Egypt.  Numerous times throughout the Torah we find lists of names, genealogies, documentation of familial ties and the recognition of the importance of naming each soul.

The famous Israeli poet Zelda wrote:

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbours

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

Translation: 2004, Marcia Lee Falk

On October 7th 2023, around 1200 souls were murdered in Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel.  Around 240 souls were taken hostage and subjected to unimaginable horrors.  A handful were released, one was rescued and 105 were then exchanged for Palestinian prisoners – around 129 remain captive in Gaza, of which 23 are believed to have been killed.  Many came from Kibbutz Nir Oz, where nearly half the community’s 400 residents were massacred or kidnapped by Hamas. At the music festival in Re’im, 364 mostly young people were brutally tortured, raped and murdered.  Some survivors of the atrocities of 7 October have been unable to cope with what they survived and have required hospitalisation.

So many numbers … so much of the media’s reporting has been about the numbers that it feels like it desensitises us to the individual acts of murder and torture that their humanity is reduced. But each and every number has a name; each had parents, siblings, children, family and friends. Each has a name, each has a story, and each leaves behind a devastated family and friends.

Shemot recounts the names of those who came down to Egypt; each name carried weight and importance.  The focus on names and family trees in the Torah elevates the importance of the individual and their connections to others.  According to Hillel the Elder, in the Jerusalem Talmud, “Whosoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world, and whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world.” (Sanhedrin 4:9)
How many worlds have been shattered? How many potential worlds will never be realised? How many lives will take on a completely different direction in light of the unimaginable trauma they or their family have experienced? Internationally, Jewish communities are mourning the loss of family and friends in Israel, worrying about young family or friends who have been called to defend their country and its people in yet another war.

In the wake of the Holocaust where so many entire extended families were murdered that there was no one left of families to say kaddish for them, it is noteworthy that those entrusted to create the Holocaust Museum in Israel, tried to move away from the incomprehensible numbers of those murdered and enslaved. Yad Vashem – a hand and a name.  Their mission was to name and record the individual experiences of as many people as they could.

In Parashat Shemot, the tribe of 70 people who descended to Egypt multiply and are then perceived to be a threat by the new pharaoh. Pharaoh orders their enslavement, and the death of all male babies – justifying the attempted genocide as a result of the tribe’s increasing numbers.

Time and again this irrational hatred of the Israelites or of Jews has raised its ugly head throughout the Torah, and throughout history.  Anti-Semitism has been the ‘go to’ tool employed by despots to evoke xenophobia, fear and nationalistic fervour. Pogroms were led by gangs of thugs who blamed Jews for everything from failed crops to disease outbreaks – basically any misfortune they could not easily otherwise attribute to someone else – and then massacred Jews in ‘revenge’.

Yet here we are once again, not just watching the horrors being played out in Israel, but also experiencing anti-Semitism here in our own cities, in a land that we thought to be safe. Some are choosing not to wear their, kippah or Magen David for fear of an altercation, some are nervous about the mezuzah on their door – it is a new and uncomfortable reality for many of us who have lived in the illusion of safety for so long. While some of us have been supported by non-Jewish friends and colleagues, some have faced bigotry and racism from ‘friends’ or work colleagues.
Ignorant of history, context, or facts, and emboldened by a permissive society which has difficulty discerning where our cherished free speech morphs into incitement and anti-Semitism, many have taken this as licence to express their anti-Semitism in increasingly troubling ways.

The importance of a name becomes even more pronounced in the context of ‘armchair warriors’ who spout hatred, division and ignorance from the safety of the anonymity afforded them by the internet.  Internet providers specialising in providing anonymity and guaranteeing the user cannot be identified allow trolling, bullying, lies, and all sorts of misbehaviour. Such cowardice was less prevalent when anonymity was harder to come by, when you had to put your name to your statement, and be recognised for your bigotry.
For this the internet and its providers and facilitators have much to answer for: They seem to forget that free speech does not imply freedom from repercussions – and that if such behaviour would not be acceptable in person, why would it be acceptable or legal on the internet?

In parashat Shemot, Moses is (ironically) raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, observes the slavery and suppression of the Israelites, and kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave. His reaction is immediate and violent.  Later in the parashah, Moses experiences the quintessential revelation of God within the burning bush, and when he confronts God with the suffering of the Israelites, God reassures Moses that the people will be redeemed.  It often feels like we are still waiting for that redemption.

As we begin 2024, as well as beginning the book of Shemot, we must renew our commitment to finding a better and more lasting peace.  While leaders may act to improve the lives of the many, we must ensure that we do not forget that each number is a name – a person cherished by friends and family and with infinite promise.

As we pray for a just peace in 2024, I wish each of you a year of health and happiness, of wholeness and holiness.

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