Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger
Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger

Unity

There is a story alluded to in our parsha which never took place. While that story is largely ignored, probably because it never happened, the grim lens of the past few weeks has magnified it for all of us.

The first part of the story did in fact happen and is clearly known to us all: Moshe's divinely destined delivery from the Nile followed an immediate conception, a secret pregnancy and a clandestine birth; infancy and adolescence in the very palace that decreed his demise as a baby; training himself to feel the pain of the brethren from whom he had been separated. Moshe then takes to the streets trying to ease the pain of his people, one Jew at a time; first he stops an Egyptian from beating a Jew and then he begs one Jew to be patient with another.

The allusion is to the second part of the story which never took place: one Jew at a time, Moshe earns their respect for all of his efforts on their behalf and the streets slowly welcome him. He gains their confidence and he begins to give them back the self esteem that had been robbed from them as the enslavement deepened; slowly he nurtures their courage and finally cultivates their long forgotten national pride. As the Jews become increasingly aware of their roots, the Egyptians also remember their Jewish viceroy, and the blessings that he and his father brought to them. It does not take long till the Egyptian empire, impressed with the unprecedented and breathtaking rise of the slave-nation, watch a proud and vibrant nation return home.

We know exactly why it did not happen. Two Jews fought bitterly, and no one cared. The one Jew (Moshe) who did come to their defense was ridiculed and mocked. Not only that, but he was turned in to the Egyptian authorities by the very Jews he came to help and thus had to flee, relegating the second part of the story for a time far off.

Sadly, the unity which has eluded our people for so much of the history of our diaspora seemed to have been secure at the opening of Sefer Shemos. The Torah lists twelve sons and refers to seventy people but records (1:3,5) them as "nefesh" as opposed to the plural "nefashos" which is seemingly more accurate. Both the Ohr Hachayim and the Kli Yakar understand that the use of the singular form indicates a cohesive family with one "nefesh", one set of large life goals, one set of broad ambitions and one set of drivers in all that they do.

Perhaps that is why Shemos begins with a "vov" (1:1), meaning "and", which is a very puzzling way to start a new sefer. If it is a new book, why does it start employing language to make it sound like another chapter of the old one? Even more suggestive is the irony of clearly intentional anonymity in a parsha and a book called "Names". After listing the well known names of Yaakov's twelve sons, almost all names are dropped. The stories of Amrom, Yocheved, Pharoh's daughter, Shlomis and her husband, Tzippora, and Dasan and Avirom are all delivered namelessly. Even the names of Shifra and Puah are codes for Yocheved and Miriam! All their names are known to us through the oral mesorah, so could there be a more deliberate omission!?

As I write this I can hear my father o.b.m. explaining to us how slavery robs one's individuality as it rips into the slave's ambitions and destiny and underutilizes any of his unique strengths. When the slave hears his name it is his call to do another person's bidding and a painful reminder that his own needs will neglected yet again.

How can we expect Jews not to fight and not to become petty when each one's individuality and importance was of no consequence, when everyone is building the same city in the same way and during the same shift?

The "nefesh" of our people, of any people, the sense of purpose that inspires respect for one another, is born out of twelve tribes which are each clearly identified. It can only survive if we let the "vov" draw us back to the end of Breishis. It is at that time that the death of Yaakov could have allowed the hatred of old and the embarrassment of the past to surface, leaving behind twelve embittered and warring factions. Yet the depth of Yosef's piety and bitachon kept us together. In effect, they may have been carried forward by one picture. They may have had imprinted in their fiber with the picture of all the brothers pledging allegiance to Hashem, around the one bed of their ailing father, each one assuming their future relative position around the aron, each one having heard the exclusive qualities of the other and appreciating the distinctive role that lay ahead for each one.

That is the challenge of the "vov" that opens Sefer Shemos! Just as Ramban says in his introduction to Shemos that during galus years we are challenged to return to the awareness of Hashem which informed the lives of our patriarchs, the "vov" challenges us all to return to the awareness that Jews pledged to Hashem's service can find room for each other around the same bed to fulfill Yaakov Avinu's prayers of "mita shleima - a complete bed".

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