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Parshas Shemos – How to Survive in Exile

By: Rav Dov Lipman

Sefer Beraishis ends with the Jews flourishing in Egypt and the death of Yosef.  Sefer Shemos begins with information we have already learned.  It describes the migration of Yaakov’s family to Egypt and the deaths of Yosef and his brothers. (The death of the brothers is new information)  Even if the Torah wanted to reset the stage for the continuing story in Egypt, why does the Torah bother repeating all of the names of the tribes who came to Egypt?

There are two glaring questions on the first verse in Shemos.  First of all, why is the first letter of the Sefer a “vav” meaning, “And?” This seems to imply that it is about to continue the story instead of the repeating information from before?  Second, why is the word that is used to describe that the Jews came to Egypt in the past written in the present tense – “habaim,” meaning “coming?”

Rashi teaches that the Torah repeats the names of the brothers to show us how much love G-d feels for the sons of Yaakov.  In the repetition of their names we see that they are like stars who are given names whether or not we see them shining.  Commentaries including the Sifsei Chachamim and the Kli Yakar explain that this parable captures the fact that the light provided by the tribes continues to glow even after they die.  Each name being listed even after they died teaches this point.  This answers our primary question  and, according to the Sifsei Chachamim, answers the question about the “vav” as well since the “vav” emphasizes that the names are being repeated a second time to show how far their influence goes.  Rashi does not seem to deal with the issue of the present tense being used.

The Ramban understands that the opening words of Shemos are deliberately a repeat of the exact same words which were taught in Parshas Vayigash (46:8) when Yaakov’s family first came to Egypt as a complete group.  The story of our exile was interrupted at that point to complete the story of Yaakov and Yosef.  Now, we are going back to the story of exile which really started at that point so that verse is repeated once again to reset the stage.  Thus, the “vav,”  the “habaim,” and the abridged repetition of the names (in Vayigash even the grandchildren are listed) are not a problem since when this verse was originally taught, they all made sense.  The Ramban shows other places in the written Torah where this type of repetition is done.  Thus, the Ramban answers all of our questions without attributing any real significance to the various issues other than it setting the stage for the story of our exile.

The Ohr HaChayim explains that the “vav” comes to show the connection between the tribes and the earlier generations. The “and” indicates an unbroken chain of righteousness.  In what specific ways did they continue in the path of our forefathers?  The Ohr HaChayim explains that our forefathers understood that G-d decreed exile on this nation and they accepted this as a necessary step in our growth as a special people.  That, he explains is the meaning behind the word “habaim” to describe their arrival in the present tense.  Both the tribes and their ancestors with whom they are connected with the “vav” were accepting of exile and were always willing to be the ones “going” into exile.  It was an ongoing ideology and philosophy throughout the generations.  This explains the use of the present tense.  (This also helps us understand how Yaakov’s sons became so settled in Egypt that they did not make efforts to head back to Canaan as soon as they gathered enough food.  They recognized that this exile was decreed by G-d for a longer period of time and accepted this.)  Each name is repeated to give prominence to those special people who willingly accepted the decree of exile upon themselves.

The Kli Yakar explains both the “vav” and the use of the present tense with one understanding.  Sefer Beraishis ended with the death of Yosef.  Immediately after that, the Egyptians began to act differently towards the children of Yaakov as if they were strangers and foreigners who were just arriving in Egypt at that time.  The “vav” connects this story to the very end of the last Sefer and the present tense connotes the way the Egyptians viewed the Jews – as if they were “coming” now. 

To answer the question regarding the list of the names here, the Kli Yakar shifts to an unrelated point that all of these names “teach about the redemption.”  This is seemingly a reference to the Midrash Tanchuma (3) which demonstrates verses throughout Scripture where words similar to the names of the tribes are used to describe something related to redemption.  Thus, the Torah specifically mentions their names because they relate to various aspects of our redemption from Egypt.

I would like to suggest that using that Midrash Tanchuma as the answer to the question regarding the list of names can also answer our question regarding the “vav” and the use of the present tense, albeit on a “drash” level.  If we take a closer look at the verses taught in relation to each of the tribes, we can learn messages which do not only relate in a superficial way to the exile and redemption from Egypt.  It is interesting to note that the exile in Egypt is not counted among the exiles we needed to experience once we became a nation.  (see Beraishis Rabbah 2:5 and 44:20)  Rather, it was an exile prior to our becoming a formal nation.  We can view the exile in Egypt as the forerunner for all future Exiles which teaches us how to exist and survive in exile and how to merit redemption.  While the Midrash simply lists verses, we can suggest that if we study these verses carefully, they are actually teaching us important lessons regarding how to deal with our current exile and how to play our role in the ongoing process of redemption. 

Perhaps that is why the Sefer begins with a “vav” and also why the present tense is used.  This is not simply the story of events that involved our forefathers at that time.  Rather, it is a story which continues to repeat itself throughout our history as we wander from one exile to the next.  “And” we are “coming” “and” then we are “coming” again.  The list of names in the beginning of the Parsha hints to the areas of focus which helped the Jews at that time and which are the keys to our success in this exile as well. 

Let us now take a look at those verses quoted by the Midrash to see what lessons we can glean and apply to our own lives in our current exile. 

Reuven: “I have seen the affliction of my nation” (Shemos 3:7)– We must be prepared for the reality that exile means suffering and persecution.  This awareness will help us cope and survive.

Shimon: “And G-d heard their cries.”  (Shemos 2:24) – We must pray for salvation and redemption.

Levi: “And many great nations will be escorted to G-d.” (Zecharya 2:15) – We must reach out to those who are unaware of G-d and His Torah and teach them.  In addition, there is the connotation of our responsibility to take advantage of our being in exile to teach the nations of the world about G-d and spirituality.

Yehuda: “I give thanks to G-d because you were angry with me .” (Yeshaya 12:1) – We must recognize that everything we have, both good and bad, comes from G-d.

Yissachar: “There is reward for your work.” (Yirmiyah 31:15) – This tribe dedicated itself to full-time immersion in the study of Torah, an imperative for Jews at all times.  While we might not always see the tangible results from our involvement in Torah, G-d promises that this pursuit is well worth our while.

Zevulun: “I have built a house for You to dwell in.” (Melachim I 8:13) – Through his business endeavors Zevulun, according to our tradition, is the tribe who supports Yissachar.  One might think that it is not worth the bother to build places of Torah and prayer while in exile.  Here we are told that doing so is a key to the preservation of our spirituality while in exile.

Binyamin: “G-d has sworn with his right hand.” (Yeshaya 62: 8) – We must know that G-d plans to redeem us as He, Himself, has sworn to do.

Dan: “And also the nation which you will serve I will judge.”  (Beraishis 15:14) We have to have faith throughout the exile that G-d is a G-d of justice who will punish those who have wronged us.

Naftali: “Honey will drip from your lips.”  (Shir HaShirim 4:11) This can refer to the mandate that in order to be redeemed we must be people who speak sweetly, avoiding lashon hara and gossip.

Gad: “And the manna was like coriander seed.” (Bamidbar 11:7) – The manna represented the fact that everything we have comes from G-d.  We must have this perspective to endure our exile and to merit redemption.

Asher: “And all of the nations will praise you.” (Malachi 3:12) – We must be a people who other nations view in a positive light, thereby fulfilling our mission to be a “light onto the nations.”

Yosef: “G-d will reassert His Hand a second time.”  (Yeshaya 11:11) We must be a people who continue to see the hand of G-d in our lives throughout exile.  This recognition will enable us to withstand the troubles of exile and to merit redemption.

We can see a beautiful picture emerging from these verses regarding how we, as individuals and as a nation, can survive through exile and ultimately merit redemption.  May all of us learn the lessons of the beginning of Shemos which are meant to apply to all generations and exiles by looking to the hints found in the verses resembling the names of the tribes.  May we come to understand what areas we must improve in our lives as we strive to survive and merit redemption from this long and bitter exile.