Names for the Nameless

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein  |  January 16, 2017

Temple of eternal flame

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’s Torah portion begins Exodus, the second of the five books of Moses. The era of the patriarchs had come to an end and a new time period was ushered in. We all know what happened next: The Israelites embark on hundreds of years of bitter slavery. It was there, in the crucible of Egypt, that the children of Jacob grew into the nation of Israel.

It’s interesting then that the title for this week’s selection is Shemot, which means “names.” A name is very individual. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that a person’s name hints at his or her unique essence. Recognizing individual names – as the Torah does in the first verses of this section – is the opposite of recognizing a singular group. We might think that since this portion is all about the collective experience of one nation, a different title would be more appropriate!

Of course, however, the title is entirely appropriate.

Because there is a danger in placing individuals into one group, especially when it comes to collective suffering. When a nation or a group is oppressed, we tend to lump all the victims together. By doing this, we minimize their suffering and mitigate our compassion. When victims are nameless and faceless, they become mere numbers and statistics. However, when someone has a name and an identity, his or her suffering is felt so much more deeply.

One of the saddest places on earth is the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz, where more than a million innocent people were gassed and burned. But the most disturbing place in the camp is not the gas chambers or the ovens. It’s the room filled with shoes. And the one next to it filled with hair. Another one filled with eyeglasses. And another filled with toys. And yet another filled with suitcases, still marked with individual names.

These rooms are filled with the personal items of the many victims who perished in Auschwitz. These rooms give names and identities to the millions that perished in the Holocaust, and that’s why they are so difficult to witness. When we recognize that each victim was a living, breathing, unique human being, who once wore eyeglasses or played with a toy, or packed a suitcase, the tragedy of that person’s massacre is felt tenfold. And hopefully this deeper impact inspires more compassion and greater change.

Today, social media makes it instantaneous to hear about tragedies around the world. It’s so easy to become immune 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 terror, we must pause and remember each victim. By doing so, we bring honor to their memory and ensure a more compassionate future.

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