One Family; One People
Towards the end of Sefer Bereishit, the Torah details the names of those who accompanied Ya’akov on his journey into exile, including Yosef and his two sons already in Egypt, eagerly awaiting their family’s arrival.
It then seems superfluous to read the exact same information – albeit in abridged form – at the start of Sefer Shemot , a mere five chapters later.
Rashi suggests that even though Hashem counted the people when they were alive, He repeats the exercise after their death, as an indication of His true love for Bnei Yisrael. Just as we treasure and marvel at something precious (Rashi speaks of stars,) so HaKadosh Baruch Hu counts Israel to show how dear they are to Him.
The Rashbam, taking a more practical angle, explains that the two passages have differing objectives. The passage at the end of Bereishit is presumably describing the exilic descent to Egypt. The passage in our parasha explains how Bnei Yisrael were few in number when they first entered Egypt, in order to contrast that figure with the rapidly growing numbers just a few years later.
Using a more homiletic approach, and extending Rashi’s comparison between Am Yisrael and the stars, the Kli Yakar suggests that there is a qualitative difference between the numbering in Sefer Bereishit – whilst they are still alive – and the recounting after they had passed away.
When a person is righteous, there is always a chance that they will fall; their final spiritual status in this world is not certain until their dying day. As Kohelet says in praise of the dead: once a person has passed on to Olam HaEmet (the World of Truth,) their life’s achievement is assured, engraved in the annals of righteousness for perpetuity.
Therefore, Hashem recounts the names of Beit Ya’akov after they die in order to emphasize that their righteous status remains eternal. Similarly, Rashi’s comparison to stars that shine after the sun has set: Ya’akov’s sons remained great men to the very end and their ‘light’ shines bright even after the sunset on their life in this world.
Let us now offer our own suggestion, which may help us understand an inherent distinction between Sefer Bereishit and Sefer Shemot:
The two ‘censuses’ indicate a qualitative difference. 70 names are listed in Bereishit. And even though the sum of 70 is mentioned again here in Shemot, the details are left aside. There is no list. Only Ya’akov’s 12 sons are named in person.
The list in Sefer Bereishit is a list of individuals; in Shemot it is a list of tribes. Though Beit Ya’akov and Bnei Yisrael seem to be two different names describing the exact same entity, they actually represent two very distinct realities.
Beit Ya’akov are the sons of Ya’akov, the second generation, the extended family. Bnei Yisrael are a people. 70 souls are listed individually because Sefer Bereishit is the very beginning; a book of individuals. Sefer Shemot indicates the birth of Am Yisrael.
We began with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, each a great monotheist, and an unparalleled leader in his own right. They all knew that if their original ideals were to spread throughout the world, outstanding individuals would not suffice. They must be supported by their descendants, the people of Israel. This idea is clearly illustrated in the blessings that Ya’akov gives to his sons on his deathbed.
Whilst relating to them as individuals, Ya’akov also relates to the family as a whole. Even though certain individuals seem destined to be leaders, each son has a role to play in the future of Am Yisrael. The era of individual idealists is to be replaced by an idyllic people; 12 tribes with different attributes will join forces as one united people.
As we enter Shemot, we immediately sense a change. The transformation has begun. Even if Bnei Yisrael do not yet realize it themselves, the Egyptian leadership certainly does. Pharaoh is the first to speak of the “people of Israel” (Shemot, 1:9.) Almost overnight, we become a nation.
This then justifies the recount at the start of Sefer Shemot, because it signifies a turning point in our history. We are no longer a group of individuals; we are now one people. The numbers and names may be the same but the essence is entirely different. The ideals of an individual are temporary and short-lived; the ideas of a people have invincible stability. Once we become a people, Avraham’s monotheism becomes a force to be reckoned with on a universal scale.
Perhaps this is Pharaoh’s real underlying fear. Whilst Ya’akov and his sons were seen as individuals, living on the periphery of society, they could be accepted as extreme but non-influential. However, once those few people become a nation, their customs and beliefs become a real danger to the Egyptian way of life, and to Pharaoh’s dictatorship.
Despite the transformation, it is important to remember that these two realities need not be mutually exclusive.
There are those ideologies that advocate community to the extreme. The individual is almost non-existent, even irrelevant. In this reality, there is no room for diversity. Uniformity is the norm; absolute sacrifice for others is the ideal, and nothing else matters. However, this seemingly praiseworthy vision is somewhat flawed.
Every human being is intrinsically different, and that makes real equality almost impossible to attain. If we are all the same, then we have no individuality. Uniformity and absolute community would indeed be viable. However, we know that if we restrain the natural uniqueness of character and freedom of expression in every human being, we will ultimately destroy our very essence.
On the other hand, ideologies that place the individual on a pedestal create societies of greed and selfishness, like Sodom and Gomorrah. A ‘dog-eat-dog’ society is doomed from the outset if it ignores the concept of community and believes in the survival of the fittest.
Judaism offers us the golden path. We look at two seemingly conflicting themes, and we understand that they are not mutually exclusive at all.
The Mishna tells us (Avot, 1:14) that Hillel said: ‘If I am not for myself then who will be for me, but if I am only for myself then what am I?’ Although there are many interpretations to this wise statement, I believe that Hillel is instructing us to be individuals – to look out for ourselves, to achieve and fulfill our individual roles in life – while at the same time remembering that we are part of a larger community.
This thesis is of course equally relevant to any nation and in every society. But Am Yisrael has the added notion of “kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh.” We are completely responsible for one another, so much so that we can even be punished for another Jew’s actions if we are aware of their intent and do nothing to stop them.
This fascinating fusion of community and individual can also be seen in our daily prayers. On the one hand, we stand in front of Hashem as individuals, yet at the same time we speak in the plural as members of a nation. This is also beautifully reflected in a seemingly technical halacha. Wherever the individual may be in his own personal tefillah, there are points during the service when he must temporarily pause and join in with the congregation. This is the Jewish philosophy. There are times when the individual must lay aside personal ambitions in order to give to his people.
In the past we have noted that Pesach and Shavuot (signifying physical and spiritual freedom respectively,) are parallel to Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. If so, one could justifiably question the necessity of making the same educational point bi-annually. Why not simply combine Pesach with Sukkot, and Shavuot with Shemini Atzeret?
The picture becomes a lot clearer if we understand Judaism to be catering to the individual and the nation alike.
As a nation, our calendar year begins with the month of Nissan, parallel to the exodus from Egypt. We therefore begin to celebrate our physical and spiritual freedom as a nation. However, Man was created in Tishrei. On Rosh Hashana we speak of the Creation of the World, thus the individual is the more prominent theme in Tishrei. Therefore, whilst we are obviously celebrating the physical and spiritual freedom of Am Yisrael during Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, we are doing so from the perspective of the individual.
This is the magic of Jewish life. One of our most fundamental philosophies is built into the very structure of the Jewish calendar – a national cycle and an individual cycle.
And so, as we enter Sefer Shemot, we are not replacing individualism with nationalism; on the contrary, we are simply moving to the next crucial stage of our growth. Every nation is made up of individuals, but the success or failure of that nation ultimately depends on its people’s ability to apply their individuality to the national entity.
This is no easy task. Pharaoh defines Am Yisrael as a people. Period. They may well have still seen themselves as a family, but now, whether they are ready or not, Am Yisrael must prepare for nationhood.
How can we ensure that this new nation survives the transformation period?
Rav Hirsch has a very insightful comment on the first verse of our parasha:
“…This family spirit, with which each son builds his home as a branch of his father’s house, allowing every father and grandfather to continue living through children and grandchildren, so that parents and children, and children and parents, are intimately united forever – this is the root of Israel’s eternal blossoming; this is the secret of the everlasting stem of Jewry.”
According to Rav Hirsch, the reason for the successful transformation from individual to nation is because we have never forgotten our family relationships. We are all related to one another, and hence we are all one entity. A nation can be defined by the fact that all its citizens share a common homeland. Although that is also the case with Am Yisrael, it is not the fundamental principle that essentially makes one Jewish. As opposed to all other nations, Am Yisrael was declared a people while still without a home. We entered Eretz Yisrael having already been defined as a people.
An Ish Yehudi is a descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. He is not classified by where he lives or even by ideology. He is defined by his family, and by his family’s traditions. And that is the key to the Jewish people’s survival throughout our turbulent history. We are one family.
This can even be seen on our streets. Visitors are often disturbed by the openness that one sees amongst Israelis. It can be interpreted as impolite, or downright rude. Indeed, however rowdy the Senate floor may appear to be on any given day, it is simply incomparable to the atmosphere in the Knesset! Although there is rarely any excuse for the manner in which some people address each other in Israel, I often feel that this familiarity reflects our family relationship. There is a tacit feeling that even though you have never met the person you are talking to, you are part of the same family, and therefore free to speak your mind!
Bnei Yisrael and Beit Ya’akov. As long as we perceive ourselves as a nation defined by family, we have the strength to overcome all obstacles, bezrat Hashem.
It is interesting to note that when celebrating Chanukah, the festival celebrating the rededication of the Second Temple, and a return to autonomous independence, each family is instructed to light one Chanukia. When walking around my neighborhood, it is wonderful to see ‘a family chanukia’ outside every single house.
Once again, we see the majestic Jewish integration of Biblical philosophy and modern practice. When celebrating the rededication of the national Beit Mikdash, we remind ourselves that the family is the key to that renewal. When our families are strong; when every Jewish home is a fortress of Jewish tradition, then we can celebrate the national Beit Mikdash.
Family values often seem old-fashioned, and unsuited to the pace and freedom of the 21st Century. In a world that is becoming increasingly self-centered, the idea of sharing a life with another person, and bringing up children, is not necessarily a priority. But for us, Beit Ya’akov, this is Judaism 101. Individuals can only become nations when firm family foundations are engraved in stone.