Parashat Shemot

While the book of Genesis tells the story of individuals, the book of Exodus tells the story of a nation. The transition from individual to nation can be felt in the first couple of verses of this week’s parasha:

And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; each man came with his household: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zevulun, and Binyamin; Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher. Altogether the descendants of Jacob numbered seventy, and Joseph was in Egypt.

And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation. And the children of Israel grew fruitful and multiplied and increased and became very great and the whole land was filled with them.

And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph. And the king said to his people: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel is greater and more numerous than us. Let us outsmart it, lest it become more numerous than us, so that in the event of a war, it might join with our enemies, fight us, and expel us from the land” (Exodus 1:1-10)

The book begins with the individual names of Jacob, the last patriarch, and of his twelve sons, but the focus quickly shifts to the collective: “And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation” (Genesis 1:6). Already in describing the passing of the previous generation, the movement towards the collective and away from the individual can be felt. “And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph” (Genesis 1:7). The new king does not know the individual Israelite. He only knows the children of Israel as a collective, and it is this collectivity, this nation, that is threatening.

The rest of the parasha switches off between the individual and the collective. We have the story of the “Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other was named Pu’a” (Exodus 1:15), whose names are mentioned explicitly, but whose only role in the story is to ensure that the next generation is Israelite gets born, and thus to help build the nation.

The story of the birth of Moses begins in chapter two: “And a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter from the house of Levi” (Genesis 2:1). His parents are introduced only by the communal affiliations. Moses then is born, must be given away. Pharaoh’s daughter takes him in, and gives him his name, Moses, which is derived from the phrase “I plucked him out from the water” (Genesis 2:10). Figuratively, we could understand the water to be the Israelite collective – Pharaoh’s daughter took Moses out of the nation, and only then he could be an individual. Only after Moses grows up, can he go back out to “his brothers, and see their suffering” (Genesis 2:11).

In a similar way, the book of Genesis tells the story of the individuals whose descendants will make up the nation. Each link in the lineage is selected individually: Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, each has an individual story, but are not yet part of a nation. Joseph, whose individual story is the most fleshed out of all his brothers, doesn’t make it into the list
of the tribes of Israel; rather, his two sons, of whom we know almost nothing, become two of the tribes.

Indeed, there is a constant tension between the individual and the collective; the more individual experiences we have, the further removed we are from the collective; but the deeper we fall into the collective, the harder it is for us to stand up for ourselves when our individual rights are abused, and the easier it is to forget that we are owed, and owe others, respect as individuals. Indeed, the Israelites in Egypt cannot stand up for themselves: they need Moses, who was raised away from his nation, to come and save them, for they cannot save themselves.

The story of Genesis is the story of the individual in this world. The first chapter opens with the creation of the world, and culminates with the creation of man in God’s image. Man in God’s image is the individual par excellence. After all, God has no peers. Genesis chronicles man’s existential struggles, his urges, his passions, his desires, and his moments of transcendence. Exodus, and the rest of the Bible, chronicles man as part of a collective. But as this parasha shows, the collective needs individuals. And so, in order to be part of the collective in a healthy way, we need to pass first through Genesis – we need to learn how to be individuals.

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