Jewish Unity and Parshat Shemot

As the young nation unified by its harmony at the end of Sefer Bereishit turns to one enslaved in Sefer Shemot, we are informed that it is in the same spirit of unity that the Jews descend to Egypt:

וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ׃

These are the names of B’nei Yisrael, as they are coming to Egypt, of Ya’akov, each man came with his household.

Yet a curious thing happens in the ensuing few Pesukim. The names of the sons (eleven out of twelve, sans Yosef) are divided into three separate verses, comprising four, three, and four names respectively. Of further note is the fact that the names are not given in chronological order, as we might have expected.

רְאוּבֵן שִׁמְעוֹן לֵוִי וִיהוּדָה׃

יִשָּׂשכָר זְבוּלֻן וּבְנְיָמִן׃

דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי גָּד וְאָשֵׁר׃

The first verse, ending with a vav to indicate that it comprises a complete group, is the original sons of Leah. The second, likewise ending with a vav, is the later sons of Leah and the one son of Rachel besides Yosef. Finally, taking up the rear, we have the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, each containing a conjunctive vav to show that each of those two groups is distinct from the other as much as it is isolated from the earlier groups.

Why are these names divided into three Pesukim instead of one, and ordered not by chronology but by their mothers, as if this is still an important distinction when their mothers are so long out of the picture?

Remember that the Parsha began by referring to the Jews as B’nei Yisrael, a unifying name which is undercut by the presentation in the Pesukim which follow, where we meet the Jews not as equal sons of Ya’akov but as children of four different mothers – first Leah, then Rachel, then the maidservants. In fact, in between we are told that the Jews came as “אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ,” implying again that the way in which the Jews entered their seminal slavery experience was not one of unity but one in which each family was essentially isolated from the others and viewed itself as a nation unto itself. But in Pasuk 7, we are again told that it was “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל” who flourished in Egypt and who Pharaoh came to see as a threat to his nation’s existence.

From the perspective of God in Pasuk 1, we are “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.” From the perspective of Pharaoh in Pasuk 7, we are likewise “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.” Yet internally, we choose to follow a perilous path by viewing ourselves not as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, but as members of smaller factions, each of which is powerless to overcome the negative spiritual influences of Egypt or the creeping reality of slavery. The Jews making their way down to Egypt saw themselves not as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, but as members of a household and as members of tribes ranked higher or lower due to an accident of birth. Lacking the unity required of us and imagined of us by others, we are powerless to overcome the pitfalls placed in our way by the other nations who seek to torment us. The theme is clear, and it has been clear throughout history: Even when we subdivide ourselves into factions – by birth mother in the past, by denomination today – to God above, and to the world around us, we are one nation.

It has been said that there were no Orthodox Jews in the concentration camps, no Conservative Jews, no Reform Jews – only Jews. It has often taken distress and persecution to remind us of this message: If we cannot remember our unity, we will be reminded of it by the rest of the world. The Jews making their way down to Egypt, looking self-consciously over their shoulders to ensure that they were not too close to “those people,” were not in a position to overcome what was about to befall them. We would do well to learn this lesson ourselves as these two destabilizing and parallel forces, factionalism from within and anti-Semitism from without, rear their ugly heads yet again in our society. May we find the strength within us to overcome both before it is too late.

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