These Are the Names!

Yael Eckstein  |  December 20, 2021

Black and white image of several people gathering next to mountains.

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.

When we think about Holocaust survivors, one of the first images that crosses our minds is the numbers tattooed on their arms. The reason the Nazis forcibly tattooed these numbers on the arms of these Jews was to dehumanize them. Once the prisoners received their numbers, they would no longer be called by their names. They became numbers.

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz. He went on to become a renowned poet and author. Here is his description of the experience of becoming a number:

“I have learnt that I am Häftling [German for “prisoner”] number 174517; we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die.

The operation was slightly painful and extraordinarily rapid; they placed us all in a row, and one by one, according to the alphabetical order of our names, we filed past a skilled official armed with a sort of pointed tool with a very short needle. It seems that this is the real, true initiation: only by “showing one’s number” can one get bread and soup.

Several days passed, and not a few cuffs and punches, before we became used to showing our number promptly enough not to disorder the daily operation of food-distribution; weeks and months were needed to learn its sound in the German language. And for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, a number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin.”

These Are the Names!

The opening words of this week’s Torah portion, which begins the Book of Exodus, are “These are the names.” In fact, in Jewish tradition, the name of this week’s Torah portion is Shemot — “names.” The Bible had already listed the names of the children of Israel who had descended to Egypt, but they are repeated here. And then right after this list of names, the story of the oppression and enslavement of Israel begins.

The Egyptians, like the Nazis, tried to dehumanize the Jews. However, the Bible tells us a different story by beginning the story of the enslavement in Egypt with this powerful message: “These are the names.” The people of Israel are precious to God. They will not be dehumanized. They are not numbers.

Your Turn:

Our names matter to God and to each other. Learn the names of the people who serve you at stores, restaurants, and public services. Lift these people up today by using their names.

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