Parshat Shemot (5774)

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

You are a star

Stars in the Sky Hubbel Space TelescopeLately I’ve been waking up earlier than I’m used to, making my way to the outside in darkness that is even more noticeable during the deep of winter. During months when the nights are longest and days short, a reality that we are forced to recognize even more as many of us change our clocks back.

As I walk out the door first thing I notice is the many starts still hanging in the sky. I’ve always loved sky-watching. The interest is even more intense as I’ve been studying Astronomy again, having recently made a commitment to go back to school after many years away from formal learning. I’ve gone back to basics, and exploring some areas that I forgot how much I loved. These days on my commute I stare out the window of trains with more interest than ever before. I watch the stars as they blink away in the light of morning.

I’m reminded of this as the morning breaks, as I try to also cram in a little basic review from the Torah. By taking in a little learning from every student’s favorite, from Rashi.

This week we also start a new leg of this Torah journey. With this Book of Shemot we make our way out of Mitzrayim – out of Egypt, the land of bondage and alienation. Let’s go back to the top of this parsha, and start with the head of our book:

“And these are the names

of the children of Israel,

who came to Egypt with Jacob,

each man and household came.

| V’eileh shemot

| benei Yisrael

| habaim Mitzrayah et Yaakov

| ish u’veito ba’u

Exodus 1:1

As we being this next section of the chumash we are quickly given a refresher course on all that has happened up until now. It starts with the troubled Yaakov going down to Egypt, and how he grew to be the nation of Israel while there. It details their trials and liberation, bring us up to speed with the exodus march detailed in this book.

Now I almost hesitate on talking on this topic, because I have often discussed the topic of names. In most shuls we often discuss how to live up the proverb of Ethics of our Fathers, “Acquire for yourself a good name.” (Pirkei Avot 2:8) How we earn a good name for ourselves, because one isn’t just given to us. It’s something we earn.

Together we have also discussed the topic of having more than one name or conflicting identities. (see Parshat Mikeitz 2012) And also about the conflict between the trickster Yaakov and his real self as Yisrael. (see Parshat Veyechi 2012) In this book of Exodus the conflicted Yaakov has long since been laid to rest. Now it is his children that this story is about, the people of Israel. His nation is most often just remembered as Israel from here on, only collectively being refereed to as Yaakov later on when the scriptures try to be poetic and catch our attention for a lesson.

Our text starts with telling us who went down to Egypt, it gives us the names of all the sons. They correspond to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each tribe and clan being descendants of these sons. They have previously been presented to us before. Is this just a shortlist genealogy? To most of us, genealogies actually sound even more boring than any refresher course.

But then Rashi engages us with this statement:

And these are the names

of the children of Israel:

Although they were numbered

in their lifetimes by name,

again they are enumerated

in death [after they died]

to let us know

how precious they are [to Him],

because they were likened to the stars,

which He takes out

[from beyond the horizon]

and brings in by number and by name,

as it is said:

“Who takes out by number

the heavenly hosts,

all of them he call by name.”

(Isaiah 40:26).

ואלה שמות |

בני ישראל: |

אף על פי שמנאן |

בחייהן בשמותן, |

חזר ומנאן |

במיתתן [אחר מיתתן] |

להודיע |

חבתן |

שנמשלו לכוכבים, |

שמוציאן |


ומכניסן במספר ובשמותם, |

שנאמר |

המוציא במספר |

צבאם |

לכולם בשם יקרא |

(ישעיהו מ כו) |

Rashi on Exodus 1;1 [From Tanchuma Buber, Shemot 2; Exod. Rabbah 1:3]

Our master Rashi tell us that we need to take notice that this enumeration is taking place after the death of Yaakov and the fathers of the tribes. (see v. 6) But it also points out to us that the tribes have already been enumerated for us before, just recently in the order of parashiot, this was a headcount while they were alive. (see Genesis 46:8-27) However, now after their death they are numbered again? Why do we have a seeming superfluous listing of the tribal leaders?

We seem to be told by Rashi not to be so cynical. Instead he touches us with a beautiful thought, saying it is because of how precious (chibatan) they to G-d. It is because G-d has affection and fondness for each of them, he highly regards them. He loves them.

We don’t often talk about the love of G-d too much, I know most of my guy friends don’t as often as we should. Not just because it’s a mushy topic of sorts, but because few Jews actually think of G-d in such a personal fashion. Other religions talk about the love of G-d often, but we tend to talk more abstract about that love because we hate anthropomorphizing such a deep concept.

Though for a moment Rashi asks us to step into the world of imagination to understand our relationship to G-d, and he uses his classical understanding of the heavens as his example. Rashi says that to G-d each of them are cochavim – each man is a star.

Where does he get this from? Well, to begin with we see that in Yosef’s dream each of the sons of Israel are presented in the form of a star. (Genesis 37:9)

I say that Rashi is trying to related a classical or even folk thought to the people, because he was a pretty knowledgeable man about the science of astronomy for 11th century France. A time when most of the advanced work was being done by the Muslims to the south and east, not in feudal Europe of the dark-ages.

Example of his departure from pure classical thought, early in his commentary for Devarim he makes notice that there are obviously more than 600,000 stars in the night sky (“Behold today you are like that stars of heaven” Deut. 1:10). He instead tweaks the meaning of the verse to suit the understanding of the time. And it is that understanding of his age that is still enshrined in his commentary, when he resolved the text by instead saying that each person is lifted up as a star and exists forever; like the sun, and the moon, and the stars (chochavim). Of course by modern observation we now know today that the eternal nature of the heavenly bodies is not true either. So we need to look at this text even differently yet.

I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. He was illustrating a point to the readers of classical thought, not necessarily applying science anyhow. You see to many of the ancient peoples and cultures the stars were the ancestors. The ancient books of many religions and cultures regard each person of merit being placed like a star in the heavens above, to live on perpetually. G-d takes the souls of the good people and makes them part of the milky way above. Even in the Greek and Roman mythology we see this theme, despite their scientific knowledge.

Though he makes people keep this symbolism in mind as he shows G-d numbering each star, not counting (שפר) but numbering (מנה) each of them. G-d is enumerating them, giving each one a number. He tags and classifies each one, as though to be kept in a case for His keeping. He individually takes them out to shine, then puts them back when its time for the new dawn to rise. We are all that precious to him.

This is the thought that I keep in mind as I watch the stars almost magically get “plucked” from the sky one by one, as the sun beings to break the day. While they just twinkle away.

As we consider Rashi’s point, I would like to make sure we understand what we mean by being enumerated. Even more than being precious enough to G-d to be counted (ספר) in the mix, we are a uniquely numbered (מנה) treasured. There isn’t another like us in the whole universe.

And for each one that he calls out, he gives a name. Here we see G-d displaying his precious princes, each one is not just a numbered treasure. Each is like the Hope Diamond, each has a name. He mentions each one by their name, as He presents each of them out. And then He calls them back by name, he knows them that well.

Rashi uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to show an interesting connection between the numbering and names (shemot) of stars. However, the commentary in the chumash truncates the text. So lets look at the whole thing:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these, who takes out their host by number; all of them He calls by name; because of His great might and because He is strong in power, no one is missing

שְׂאוּ מָרוֹם עֵינֵיכֶם וּרְאוּ מִי בָרָא אֵלֶּה הַמּוֹצִיא בְמִסְפָּר צְבָאָם לְכֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יִקְרָא מֵרֹב אוֹנִים וְאַמִּיץ כֹּחַ אִישׁ לֹא נֶעְדָּר:

Isaiah 40:26

The prophets and our rabbis want us to understand that we are all stars, each of us is that brilliant. We each have our place, and we are all called out. Unique by number, special by name. He takes us out for public display, and brings us back to the vaults to keep us safe. Either way, we stand assured because G-d is just that strong and powerful to keep us secure.

Though here the prophet also made yet another point that we miss by just mentioning the verse in passing. The last and most interesting part of the verse, “ish lo ne’dar / no one is missing.” No ish – no man, no person, – no one is missing.

In G-d’s universe, no one is missing. And everyone has their place. To be ne’edar means to be absent, not just to be missing; but to be excluded. G-d doesn’t let us go missing, and not take notice. We aren’t absent and uncalled. G-d won’t just let us go missing. Neither are we excluded. G-d does not exclude us.

Hubble's Latest Views of Light Echo from Star V838 Monocerotis

Hubble’s Latest Views of Light Echo from Star V838 Monocerotis

So what happens when we feel just that? Like we don’t have our place? Like our star isn’t shinning up on display like it should be? When we go ignored. Or when we just can’t be there. Or when we feel excluded, like there is no place for us. What then? And what does it say about G-d? What does it say about us?

Maybe the best answer is that when Hashem places us in our spot in the universe, he places us in that spot by name and number. That is a place made uniquely for us, marked for us. And we are marked for it. Our place on display and on the shelf both have our name on it. Maybe the problem isn’t that G-d hasn’t made a place for us, it’s just that we are trying to shove yourselves into the wrong place. Or we are just refusing to be recognized as who we are. G-d is recalling us by the name He intimately knows us by, while we are trying to change our label to say something else. We’re trying to scratch off our serial number.

As I let my brain wander between Torah and Astronomy, you would think that this lesson would be ruined by my cold, hard facts of the way the universe works according to science. Quite to the contrary. I’m amazed by how much more we learn with each leap forward in knowledge. My sense of awe in this existence hasn’t waned through science anymore than it has for most others.

In fact for those of us geeky types, we can’t help but notice that among the biggest space enthusiasts among us there is the deep desire to get our names written in the stars. To discover something amazing that will bare your name; a comet, a ring or belt, a planet or star. So much do modern people want to still connect their name with the virtual eternalness and majesty of the stars that people can even buy stars online. That’s right, you can buy one and have it named after you or a family member for a special occasions like a birthday! I’m not sure of the legality, but it sounds kind of charming if your into that sort of thing. To say the least, we still have that fix to be connected to the stars. We want to be stars.

In the modern age we know a bit more about stars. That they are not just reflective pieces that give light in the heavens. They are actually a kind of microcosms of the galaxy. More than being just a world of possibilities, each person is a mini-universe in their own person. You’re that amazing.

So remember, you are a star! Maybe you might not see yourself as a star yet, but you are. In your own special, unique way, you were made to shine.

So as we look at this lesson this week and we see G-d recounting the stars of the Jewish people, the fathers of the tribes, we need to remember that G-d calls us by name at our height and at our nadir. He speaks to the person we really are. G-d calls us by our shemot – by our names. He calls each of us by name, to stand as who we are and secure in the spot that He has carved out for us and where we fit. The real place we are actually marked for.

This shabbat I want to spend a lot of time asking myself who I think I really am, and where I feel I belong in the universe. Where has G-d placed me, and what would I like to grow into? For now I’ll just keep studying the stars and Torah, and considering the worlds of possibilities there are in the many talented souls out there.

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