Sermon: Shemot

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 4 January 2019

As a child I remember being amazed that one person could have so much knowledge that, singlehandedly, they could write all the articles on all the subjects in an encyclopaedia! Only later did I notice the initials at the end of each entry, referring to the writer – usually the recognised expert of their time on that subject – commissioned by the editors to write that entry.

Many years ago I was told, I trust reliably, that in the 1930 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, the article on ‘People’ – on what constitutes a people – was written by somebody with the initials BM, referring to Benito Mussolini. His definition of a people was, not surprisingly, “a group who fight together.” And by ‘fight together’ I presume he meant against some group outside their own, rather than, ‘fight against each other.’

One of the disadvantages of being a minority in society is that it’s often somebody else, somebody who isn’t part of the group, who defines who and what you are. And often it’s a definition based on prejudice, stereotype, fear or plain, simple misinformation.

This Shabbat we started reading the second book of the Torah, Exodus. The story of the Jews moves outwards, now, and focuses on our relationship with the outside world. And right at the beginning, it is an outsider who defines us. Pharaoh formulates his plan for an Egyptian ‘Final Solution.’ “Look,” he says, “the Israelite people is much too numerous for us.” (Exodus 1:9) The wording in Hebrew is הנה עם בני ישראל literally ‘the people of the children of Israel.’ That seems rather superfluous. Surely, it would be enough to say,  עם ישראל’the people of Israel’ or  בני ישראל’the children of Israel.’ So why עם בני ישראל?

This is also the first time the Torah refers to the Jews as an עם, a ‘people.’ In Genesis we were simply בני ישראל  ‘the children of Israel.’ “Big deal,” you might be thinking. “What difference whether we’re עם בניישראל or בני ישראל? Just a different name to describe the same group referred to throughout Genesis.”

When you and I name something – children, for example – we don’t, generally, choose names in the way people did in the Torah. There a name reflected the essence of the person, or was related to the circumstances of their conception or birth.

The main characters in Genesis reflect different ways of defining ourselves, different parts of our essential being as a people. That might explain why only now, at the beginning of Exodus, are we anעם , a ‘people.’ Only now are all the required components for an עם, a ‘people,’ present.

So what do we have in Genesis? An Abraham who represents the person who comes to Jewishness from a non-Jewish background and milieu. Neither his parents nor his grandparents are in any sense Jewish. The next generation, his son Isaac, introduces the idea that a Jew can be born a Jew: Jewish parents but not yet Jewish grandparents. Only with his son, Jacob, do we find the Jew who has both Jewish parents and grandparents. Each Patriarch provides, then, one of the elements needed for Jewish identity.

In Genesis we read about what happens to a number of related individuals in what was to become this ‘people,’ But it’s still a משפחה a ‘family,’ but not yet an עם, a ‘people.’ – similar things happen in each generation; they’re connected by ties of birth; each of them is part of a covenant, which defines duty and promisers favour.

For Mussolini a ‘people’ was ‘a group that fights together.’ A fascist definition, indeed – emphasising, as fascism does, strength and physical might. Just Googler ‘quotes by Mussolini’ and you’ll see how much he saw strength and power as the glue binding a people together. By implication, those lacking that strength and might are not to be included in the עם. There’s no room here for individuals in their own right as individuals. For the fascist, we exist only in so far as we serve the State, obey its laws, give unquestioning obedience to the leader, whatever his title: Duce, Fuhrer – or Pharaoh.

By contrast, what is it that makes us a people? Clearly a group with certain shared characteristics. A feeling that we have a common, shared past. So, for example, we sit around our Seder tables and talk about how we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, even though neither we nor our ancestors had ever been there.

There’s also a sense of common destiny and future. What happens in Israel affects us. An American of Irish descent living in New York might have felt a connection with what was going on during ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, but not in the sense that they know it will have a direct impact on their life in New York. As the events of recent times have shown, a Jew experiences events affecting other Jews across the world, in some more-direct, personal way – even when they don’t want to feel that connection. Certainly that’s how the outside world sees us: all of us are somehow representatives of Israel: its people, its government, its army.

In ancient times the book of Exodus had two other names. It was called sefer yetsiat mitzrayim “the book of the going out of Egypt” – that link with the past. Indeed, one of the halachic requirements for every service is that there should be a reference to the Exodus: that past event which remains ever-present. The other name is sefer geulah “the book of Redemption.” For the Exodus is not simply a past event which is ever-present, but a past event which is due to happen again in the future. That is no doubt why the Exodus became a paradigm, a model, for so many liberation movements all over the world, a redemption for every oppressed and enslaved people.

Pharaoh can have had no idea what he was saying in referring to us as am bnei yisrael. But he unwittingly showed an intuitive understanding of our nature in referring to us in that double-barrelled way: bnei yisrael, as individuals, the children of Israel, the family; and, in the same breath, as am, the totality of the people, past, present and future.

The problem in our time is that we don’t always know a lot about our common past, and we’re not too sure about that common destiny.

Lacking such reference points makes us both rootless and aimless; rootless, because we’re divorced from our past; aimless, because we’re unsure of our future. With little sense of the past or the future to define ourselves, we fall back on how others define us – what else is left? We look over our shoulders, worried lest something we do confirms the stereotype, ‘proves’ to the outsider that their prejudiced definition is correct. But when you let others define who you are, you end up losing your self-respect, and respect for the thing they are defining – in this case, your Jewish identity.

Our sense of identity cannot come, a la Mussolini, from physical strength; nor from fighting an outside foe: “I’m Jewish because there are people out there who hate me.” Our identity must come from knowing what our name is – from being able to name – that is, to understand – our past, what essence it encapsulates and what characteristics are contained in it. f

Survival is not about the outer strength of a people that seemed so important for Mussolini. No – survival of a people is about inner strength, certainty of roots and of aims; knowing who and what we are as Jews, where we have come from and with some sense of where we should be heading.

If that is what comes to define our identity, then we will, surely, survive.