These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: — Exodus 1:1
Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Shemot, which means which means “names,” from Exodus 1:1–6:1.
One of the saddest places on earth is Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, where over a million innocent people were murdered. However, the most disturbing place in Auschwitz is not the gas chambers. It is the rooms filled with items that once belonged to victims of the Holocaust.
There is a room filled with shoes, a room filled with hair, another full of eyeglasses, and another filled with suitcases, still marked with the names of those who once owned them. These rooms have glass walls so that visitors can view their contents. The personal items give identities to those who perished in Auschwitz, and while they are difficult to see, they ensure that the victims are remembered as more than just statistics and numbers. Every victim has a name. As it says in the Book of Isaiah, each victim deserves “a memorial and a name” (56:5).
Everybody Has an Identity
This week’s Torah portion begins the second of the Five Books of Moses. In English, this book is called Exodus, but in Hebrew, it is known as Shemot which means “Names.” The Jewish sages pointed out that this might seem like a strange title for a book mainly about the collective suffering of a people. However, in actuality, the title “Names” is especially fitting, because it is precisely when we discuss the suffering of large numbers of people that we need to remember that each person has an individual identity.
When a nation or a group is oppressed, we tend to lump the victims together. However, by doing so, we minimize their suffering and mitigate our sympathy. When victims are nameless and faceless, they become mere numbers and statistics. Yet, when someone has a name and an identity, their suffering is felt more deeply, and we are likely to respond much more compassionately.
Today, modern technology makes it easier than ever to hear about all kinds of tragedies around the world. It’s easy to become desensitized to human suffering. But we must remember that every victim has a name and has value beyond what we can understand. Whether lives are claimed in a natural disaster or by human violence, we must pause and remember each individual as best as we can. By doing so, we bring honor to their memory and ensure a more compassionate future.