Legacy and Jewish Identity
What is the greatest legacy we can leave to our children and grandchildren? Our parashah this past week, Parashat Vayehi and this week’s parashah, Shemot, give us the opportunity to reflect on this essential question. Last week, we encountered Jacob, a man on his deathbed, blessing his son Joseph and his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. At one point in the blessing Jacob says, “may the angel who has redeemed me from all evil bless the lads and in them may my name be called and also the names of my ancestors, Abraham and Isaac; and may they multiply in the closeness of the land” (Genesis 48:16). What is it that our patriarch Jacob so desires for his descendants? He desires that his name will be recalled in his grandchildren. More than his name, it is the chain of generations to which Jacob alludes. It is the rich tradition that he has become a part of, his spiritual legacy, that Jacob is so concerned about transmitting into the future. The haftarah echoes Jacob’s heartfelt concern as David conveys a similar message to his son Solomon, hoping that Solomon will walk in the ways of God. A tradition based on learning is what is at the core of both of their messages. And from that rich tradition derives our sense of identity.
The connection to Parashat Shemot is intriguing, and for me it is inspired by my reading of Avivah Zornberg’s The Particulars of Rapture — her commentary on the book of Exodus. Dr. Zornberg directs our attention to the beginning of Parashat Shemot which lists the names of all of Jacob’s sons who descended to Egypt. References to individuals are explicit, identity is clear as the children of Israel move to their new ‘home.’ Yet as the parashah continues, a fascinating transition occurs. We read, “but the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). One of the words used for the fertility of the Israelites is the Hebrew ‘vayishratzu‘ — quite literally ‘they swarmed.’ The image is meant to recall the fifth day of creation — on which God created swarming reptiles. Sforno, a sixteenth century Italian commentator, writes insightfully, “after the seventy descendants of Jacob died, the children of Israel tended toward the ways of swarming reptiles.” That is to say, the Israelites became identity—less. Far from being rooted in their ancestors’ traditions, Sforno makes the claim that the Israelites lost all that had made them distinct and particular. They became nameless.
It should then come as no surprise when we read in the following verse, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Why should we be surprised that the new king knew not of Joseph’s accomplishments? If we read the text informed by Sforno’s understanding, it would lead us to believe that the Israelites themselves knew not of Joseph and his merit. If they themselves had lost all semblance of identity, then we can understand why it is they slid into a slave mentality. While we may find Sforno’s reading disturbing at first in that it blames the Israelites in part for their slavery, he gives us a great deal to think about vis a vis our own Jewish identity.
May we learn from the misdeeds of our ancestors. And may we and our children and our children’s children immerse ourselves in learning so that we come to understand the essence of our shemot — our names and our history.
With wishes for a good week and Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz
The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.