Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
“And these are the names [Shemot] of the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt with Jacob, each man with his household they came.” [Ex. 1:1]
The book of Exodus, which details the enslavement and eventual redemption of our people, begins with our names. Egypt, like Nazi Germany, attempted a Holocaust against our people. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives (who thankfully resisted) to kill all newborn baby boys, which would effectively destroy the Jewish people in one generation. However, unlike what happened to us under the Nazi oppression, where Jews in the death camps were tattooed with numbers meant to deny them any humanity, in Egypt we kept our names. A name is a powerful thing. It identifies us, and when we attach ourselves to a family or people, it connects us with their history and values. Thus, the history of our enslavement and our miraculous redemption begins with our names, so that we can remember who we really are.
As anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the world today, as some would try to portray us in ways that take away our humanity and attempt to hijack the meaning of our tradition, we can respond by refusing to accept such nonsense. We have names, and we have families, and we are part of a people with a noble religious tradition and inspiring values.
With this in mind, I would like to share two expressions of what it means to be a Jew, one from France in the early 20th Century and the second from Brooklyn, just a few weeks ago. The first was written by the French playwright and philosopher Edmund Fleg. He was a proud Frenchman, a recipient of the War Cross and eventually an officer in the Foreign Legion. He was also an ardent Zionist. In the 1920’s, according to legend, he was offered a prestigious position to teach Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, the offer came with a stipulation: he would have to convert out of Judaism. In 1928, he published his rejection of this requirement with his response, Porquoi Je Suis Juife (Why I am a Jew). What follows is an adaptation of his powerful statement from the Reform movement prayer book Mishkan Tefillah (pg. 203):
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss spoke these next words at the “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march in Brooklyn on January 5. May we be inspired by both her words and his to stay true to who we are, and proudly proclaim our names as part of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel):
My name is Bari Weiss.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras