These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family . . . - Exodus 1:1
This Torah portion for this week is Shemot, which means "names," from Exodus 1:1-6:1, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23.
This week, we begin the book of Exodus, the second of the Five Books of Moses. It starts: "These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family," and then proceeds to list the names of the sons of Jacob, noting that Joseph was already in Egypt and that the total number of people who went to Egypt was 70.
But weren't we already given this information? Back in Genesis 46 we were given an even more detailed account of the children of Israel who went into Egypt. Every name of every family member is listed. According to Jewish tradition, not a single piece of information in the Bible is superfluous. So what is the purpose of the first several verses of Exodus? Are they not merely a repeat of the end of Genesis?
The Jewish sages explain that God called out the names of the children of Israel once again in order to teach us that they are like the stars. In Isaiah 40:26, we read that God "brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name." God calls out each star at night by name. It is a personal invitation to the body of light to come and illuminate the night sky.
Similarly, God calls out the names of the children of Israel to teach us that they, too, are sources of light called to illuminate darkness. As they were heading into the dark place of ancient Egypt - a place of immorality and great evil - God is teaching us that the children of Israel were to be like stars in the night - illuminating, enlightening, and inspiring.
At one point or another, most of us ask this question: "What are we doing in this place?" Some people wonder why God placed them in a particular family. Others wonder why God placed them in such difficult life circumstances. Why this community? Why this workplace? Why this life?
There are always two ways in which we can answer those questions. We can look around at all the darkness and decide that God wants to make our lives difficult. Or, we can recognize that God placed us in the dark place so that we can be the light. That workplace with the terrible atmosphere needs your light. That broken family with all its issues needs you to guide the way. That community you were born into needs someone to shine some light in it. That light is you!
Next time you find yourself in a dark place, remember that you weren't called into darkness, rather you are destined to bring the light.