“And he (the Egyptian King) said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are many and too numerous for us’” Exodus 1:9
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Sefer Shemot, The Book of Exodus, is the second book of the five making up the Chumash. Although often named Exodus, the Hebrew word shemot means “names”.
It makes perfect sense to call this book “names” as it begins with listing the names of the sons of Jacob, who become the leaders and forefathers of the entire Jewish nation. However, their names were listed at the very end of the book of Genesis – so why the repetition and what could it mean?
Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) highlights this point when he questions why our sages give Sefer Shemot the accolade “The Second Book” as if it had no real story of its own, but rather is simply a continuation of Genesis. Perhaps he recognised the differences in the listing of the names of Jacob’s sons. In the former, they are listed in order of birth, chronologically, as individuals, as members of a family. But in this week’s parashah, they are listed by mothers, the national status with which they continue to live their lives as the “Nation Israel”.
This is emphasised by the newly appointed Egyptian King, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are many” – not simply “sons” but “the people”; and arguably it is his fear of the “Nation Israel” which leads to hatred, and the hatred to four hundred years of slavery and suffering.
These twelve individual men form the backbone of a nation, but they began their journeys as twelve brothers of one family. The “Second Book” transforms their individual lives, their trials, failures and successes into the qualities necessary to become the “Nation Israel”.