Keeping ‘Shemot’ in our memory

Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro is Rabbi-Educator at United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro

Our Torah portion, and thus this book of our Torah, is titled “Shemot” or “Names”.  As we know, the title is often taken from the first few words of the portion.   Yet another name that was used for this portion was “sefer yetsi’at Mitzrayim” or “The Book of the Departure from Egypt.”  The latter evolved into the title used from the time the text was translated into other languages to today which refers to the book as “Exodus.”

Our portion opens with the listing of names of the sons of Jacob who came into Egypt.  Within a few sentences, we learn that all of the generation of Joseph have died and that the Israelites were fertile and multiplied greatly.  Knowing of the success of Joseph in Egypt, we might imagine that the Israelites spoke of Joseph often and that there were stories passed down through the generations about his greatness.  We might also expect that within the tales of the Egyptians, the story of Joseph, the great Royal Steward to Pharaoh, would often be told as well.  Yet, we learn in Chapter 1, verse 8:  “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”  Consequently, this new king decides that the Israelite people are too numerous and that Egypt must set taskmasters over this people.  The Israelite people become slaves to Egypt.

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Perhaps we should not be surprised by this occurrence.  Since the beginning of recorded history, we have seen this phenomena occur.   A group of people or a country becomes an aide to another country or ruler, but within a few decades (sometimes even fewer), that “ally” is deemed unimportant or even an enemy.  This could be a result of an actual turn on behalf of the supporter, or sometimes has just been the result of a need for a scapegoat at the hands of a dictator.  But in all cases, the new ruler seems to “not know” the history that came before.  The past is erased.

This text offers us a great lesson on a global front, but also on the smaller scale personal front.  Do we know the history of our families or our community leaders? Or do we “not know” those who may have helped us, our family, or our community, in times past?  Do we “not know” enough about those who came before us and those who stand right before us now?  

There is only one way to ensure that a time does not come when we can no longer remember those who came before.   We must learn, record, and pass down the stories of people who are important in our community and those important to us.   Today, the technology, available in many of our homes,  gives each of us the opportunity to do so.

As the opening of our secular new year corresponds with the opening of Shemot, let us learn the lesson of the importance of names and the value of keeping these stories alive.  Let us resolve to dedicate ourselves to reaching out to our family members and community members who have stories to tell.  Let us help our leaders remember to be thankful for and respectful of those who have stood by our country’s side.  And let us all pass down the “names” and the stories of the men and women who have made a difference in our lives and in our world, and make sure that there does not arise a generation “who knew not Joseph.”