I used to keep every calendar in those big black binders- days at a glance, which cover 15months of a year. It was easy to keep my appointments, notes and birthdays in one book. They soon turned from black to magnificent color and pattern. I kept my calendar this way until I lost my silver grey day at a glance when we moved. I panicked and soon turned everything over to my I-phone. I admit that it does work well; but having to keep my notes somewhere different and get them from I-pad to computer has not been easy. I have 26 of these black notebooks, which cover the years of High School, College, time working, Rabbinic School and then 17 years of congregational work. They are not only calendars; they have become my journals. I have phone numbers, comments on dates and days, poetry which I have written, notes back and forth to my table mates and so many other writings which I thought were important at the time. It’s the names that strike me. There are those who have stayed in the books forever, names entered in college who remain a close and important part of my life. Congregants who I met with once, whom I cannot yet recall and those who have continued to dance with me through the years. I love reading aloud the names of those I dated and what we did each date, six months of a James, Paul, Mark, Dan, the Doctor who does not have a first name but has a city address and a Hampton address, cell, home and pager. Could he have been my doctor, or the psychiatrist whom I dated until he proposed too early? In my calendar from 1990-1991, I first write the name of my husband with stars and exclamation points and a stapled card of John Singer Sargent’s “Dry Piozzi” who looks, in my eyes like my husband. The names of family members are sprinkled in weekly. These books are my Shot- names that have helped to mold and create who I am.
In many ways, the book of Shemot, which we begin this week is the most Jewish book of the Torah. It begins with the story of freedom from Egyptian slavery and the people Israel becoming their own nation and leads to Mt. Sinai, the moment of revelation and redemption. The remainder of the book of Shemot details Jewish laws and the content of the covenant that authorizes the building of a place of worship so that God can dwell among the Jews.
With all these wonderful things that happen in Sefer Shemot, the book begins with long list of names. It states, “these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household…” the narrative then lists many, many, many names.
Why does such a promising book begin with a huge list of names? It’s not a very auspicious beginning. Jewish commentators offer several answers to that question.
Midrash Shmot Rabba asserts that listing the names “adds new praise for the 70 souls who are mentioned, indicating that all of them were righteous.” Listing the names, therefore, is a way of asserting the worth of every individual.
In a similar vein, the Midrash equates the importance of the people Israel with the stars in the heaven, noting that the word Shmot refers to both. Rashi states “even though the names of these people were recorded during their lifetime, the Torah returned and recorded their names after death to proclaim how beloved they were.”
Lists matter only if those listed matter. We can all remember reading an authors long list of acknowledgement or hearing a Bar mitzvah recite the names of those who helped him to reach that particular day.
In precisely the same way, the lists of the Torah assert the worth of humanity. We may not care about every name listed, but the Torah does, and wants us to learn to respond to those names as well. Those names teach us that more people are involved in our lives than we can ever acknowledge, and that we are more deeply embedded in society than we will ever know.
Think for a moment of all the people who have had an affect on helping to make you the person you are today. Consider family members, teachers of years past, even those kids from your pre-school class whose names you may not even remember. Add in characters from books, television programs, people who you sat next to on a plane ride, people who gave you jobs or advice. Those you loved or thought you loved and so on and so on. The list becomes very lengthy.
To other people, your list would probably seem boring. But each of us cherishes such a private list of gratitude, since that list represents many facets of our own personality. By reading lists in the Torah narrative, the Torah makes us recall our dependence on other people and spurs us to be influences on others.
There are many lists waiting to be assembled. All of them have space for each of our names, and only we can place our name where it is meant to be. We depend on each other to blossom as people and as Jews- in the deeds that we do for each other, the insight we provide, and the way that we help built each other’s future.