Among the more irritating qualities of teenagers is their attempt to convey a lack of intellectual curiosity. Certainly this attitude is something that neither my wife nor I model nor condone. Maybe it’s not all teenagers all the time. Maybe this lack of intellectual curiosity exists in some teenagers some of the time. As parents, there is perhaps no greater frustration than watching our children receive an assignment in English class that involves reading a book and then writing an essay or a paper about some aspect of the book. The frustration sets in immediately as our children’s criteria for choosing the book is the number of pages, the size of the print, and the degree of difficulty. If I suggest a book, I can all but guarantee that our child will find some inane reason not to read it. Well, I am here to say that we had a momentous breakthrough. Our daughter received a list of choices for her book assignment. One of the choices offered was Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes. I had read the book, and I liked the book. Because the book told the story of a young girl’s life of from childhood to old age, and that much of the book involved American history, I felt that our daughter would be able to connect to the text and enjoy it. I explained that when the Book of Negroes was published; it was published in the U.S. with a different title. In the US the book was entitled: Someone Knows My Name. When she asked why, I told her that was for her to figure out. Amazingly enough my non-answer piqued her interest. Sure she hemmed and hawed, but she read the book. More importantly, she asked questions about the book, she expressed interest in the book. When she finished the book she could appreciate the U.S. title. She even figured out that issues of race are very different in the U.S. compared to Canada, and the term Negro became a derogatory term within the African American community in a very different way than in Canada. She even thanked me for suggesting it to her in the first place. I was shocked, and I was very proud of her. She exhibited genuine intellectual curiosity and suddenly she became an interesting person with whom I could discuss issues.
This week we begin the second book of the Torah; the Book of Exodus – Sefer Shmot, literally translated into “The Book of Names”. This second book begins with the Parsha Shmot – The Book of Names. The first few verses essentially recount the ending of the Book of Genesis. Shmot re-iterates names of Jacobs’ sons and the fact that Jacob and his sons came to Egypt. We are reminded that Jacob had already died. We are reminded that next generation, Jacob’s sons (including Yosef) passed away. A new king assumes the mantle of power and does not know of Yosef’s great deeds. Instead, the new Pharaoh believed that this foreign population was tantamount to a fifth column. Therefore this tribe must be enslaved in order to prevent their uniting with Egypt’s external enemies. We read about the birth and growth of Moses, and his flight to Midian. We read about his becoming a husband, a shepherd, a father. We learn of his epiphany with the Burning Bush and God’s instructions plan to redeem B’nai Israel from slavery and Moshe’s role in the redemptive process.
Considering, that this is a completely new Sefer, a new Book of the Torah, and that dominant theme of this new book is redemption from slavery and the national revelation at Mt. Sinai, why should the text be known as a Book of Names and why should it begin with a re-iteration of the names of Jacobs’ sons: V’Eilah Shmot B’nai Yisroel Ha’Baim Mitzrayaima Eit Yaakov Ish U’Veito Ba’u- And these are the name of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt with Jacob, each man and his household came, Reuven Shimon, Levi, Yehuda; Issachar, Zebulun , and Benjamin; Dan Naphtali; Gad and Asher. We don’t normally begin a new book with conjunction, especially the conjunction “And”. Instead of beginning the Parsha and the Book of Shmot with Eilah (These), the Parsha begins with V’Eilah (And these). Also, we know, based upon the conclusion of Sefer Breishit that the sons, along with Jacob, arrived in Egypt decades before (Gen. 46:8-30). Why do these opening verses repeat the concluding verses of the previous book? RaMBaN, (the great 12th century Spanish doctor, commentator and Halachist), and R’ Bachya (late 13th early 14th century Torah commentator), explain that the conjunction which begins the Parsha purposefully connects this new book to the previous book. “B’nai Yisroel”, the term now used for the extended tribe owe their existence and their future existence to V’Eilah –“and these”…. these sons of Jacob, these sons who were “with Jacob” in his descent into Egypt. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (19th Cent. Germany) explains that these twelve sons and their resulting twelve tribal families were intimately attached to Jacob, and this was the secret of Israel’s strength and survival in Egypt. Although each son had his own family, he remained connected and united with Jacob. Implicit to these opening versus we understand that the secret to B’nai Israel’s survival in Egypt as slaves: past, present and future were connected through values and covenant of the name of Jacobs twelve sons, Jacob, and his father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham. The strength of those connections, the strength of being connected to the past with an eye towards a hopeful and positive future kept B’nai Israel spiritually free despite physical hardship and bondage.
The names explicitly mentioned, Jacob and his son’s, stood for something. Implicitly, these names stood for and symbolized a covenantal relationship with God. These names stood for inheriting a land, as well as making a great name for itself. For their descendants, the names gave them an identity, an identity that kept them spiritually free despite their physical bondage. Our daughter learned the same lesson from The Book of Negroes. People’s names matter. A given name matters as does the surname. Often times, a given name reflects the parents’ hopes and dreams for that child. A given name expresses a parents’ hope of whom the child should emulate, and whose values the child should grow to aspire to and embody. However a surname tells the child where she from and to whom she belongs. A surname provides a backdrop, a narrative for the child to be part of and to expand. Now that she has become a bit more intellectually curious, maybe she will be more enthusiastic to make her name part of her family’s narrative.