If the book of Breishit is about family, then the book of Shemot is about nationhood. While it opens with re-enumerating the children of Yaakov, the narrative immediately turns to the birth and the history of the Israelite nation. The very phrase bnei Yisrael undergoes a metamorphosis in the first verses. In the opening verse we read “And these are the names of bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel (i.e., Yaakov) who came to Egypt with Jacob…” (Shemot 1:1), and then, 6 verses later, this children of Israel, children of Jacob, have undergone a metamorphosis and have become the Children of Israel, the Israelite People: “And the Children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly and multiplied, and the land was filled with them” (Shemot 1:6). The transformation of the phrase parallels the transformation of the people, from a family into a People, into a nation.
It is also in parshat Shemot that Bnei Yisrael are called a nation, an am, for the first time. “And he [Pharaoh] said to his people, Behold, the people of the Children of Israel, ‘am Bnei Yisrael are more populous and mightier than we.” (1:9). They were recognized as a people, and as a separate people. And because this people was seen as a threat, they were persecuted and enslaved. It was perhaps this persecution, this “othering,” that strengthened their identity, their internal cohesion. As when one applies pressure to gas in a container, the external pressure excites the molecules and brings them closer together, so with the Children of Israel: ” But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew” (1:12). Oppression brought the people together, and forged their identity as a distinct people. It is thus the outside, the chief oppressor, Pharaoh, who is the one who is the first to call them a people. They first became a people because they were defined as such by others, they first cohered as a people because they were oppressed by others.
To have one’s identity defined by others, and by being seen as “the other,” by being different and separate, is perhaps necessary at an early stage of formation, when individuation is necessary to prevent assimilation. Indeed, had Bnei Yisrael not lived in Goshen, apart from the Egyptians and Egyptian society, they would have doubtless assimilated and never have become a people. As it was, they barely held on to markers of their identity. As the Rabbis teach, they were idolatrous just like the Egyptians were idolatrous. It was only because they preserved some external vestiges of their distinct identity – they did not change their names or their language (or, according to other versions, their clothes) – that they had not totally assimilated. In the end, living apart, being held apart, being hated and marked as different, was what preserved their Israelite identity.
[Of course, although such hatred and oppression is good for communal identity, it is horrific for the material and societal well-being of the people. It was this hatred that led to their enslavement, and this enslavement became possible through casting them as subhuman, as completely other. Ramban (1:10) already deals with how the Egyptians managed to enslave a free people, and he describes a process that is evocative of the Nuremberg Laws and Nazi Germany. What he does not describe is how Pharaoh had also laid the groundwork for this enslavement, as the Nazis had, by propaganda that demonized the people and cast them as subhuman. Their population growth is described in terms similar to that of animals, of insects: ” And the people of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, va’yishretzu, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.” The root of the word, va’yishretzu, is sheretz, a bug – the multiplied like bugs. The phrase pru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply, occurs twice in Breishit in reference to humans (1:28 and 9:1), but the verb yishritzu is applied only to animals (Breishit 1:20-21 and 8:17). When it is said that “the land was filled with them,” while echoing the blessing in Breishit of “fill the land,” from the perspective of the Egyptians, whose land it was, this was nothing more than having their country being overrun by animals. They were multiplying like cockroaches! And thus, “And they were disgusted by the People of Israel.” (1:12) – the sight of an Israelite caused disgust and revulsion.
By dehumanizing them, Pharaoh was able to enslave them and then to begin his program of genocide. If they were not fully human, it was not murder to kill them. The Hebrew midwives, however, we able to use this in their defense: “And the midwives said to Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are animals, chayot hena, and deliver before the midwives come to them.” (1:19). You have said they are animals – indeed they are, and thus they give birth in the field without a midwife. A temporary stay of the decree was achieved, but ultimately, the program of genocide continued.]
Being hated by, and oppressed by the other is not a good, it is an evil. It was one that Bnei Yisrael needed to be redeemed from, and one that they would devote their existence as a nation to fighting against. While this oppression was true and perhaps necessary at the time of their national origin, this was not how they should seek to achieve cohesion and identity as a nation. As a nation, we must define ourselves.
It is only necessary to be externally defined when we have no internal definition. If we have no mitzvot, and no vision, then all we have is our clothes, our language and our names. External markers are needed when no internal distinctiveness exists. The goal is not to live separate, and to be defined by the other and by one’s separateness, the goal is to live in the world, and to be defined by oneself and one’s commitments. We must decide – will we be defined by what we are against, or will we be defined by what we are for?
The answer, at least for Moshe, was unquestionably the latter. Moshe was a person who did change his name, his language and his clothes. Moshe was given his name because “And she called his name Moshe, for I have mishitihu from the water.” Many commentators try to find the Hebrew root for this verb, mishitihu, but this makes no sense since Pharaoh’s daughter obviously was speaking in Egyptian. And in Egyptian, the word means “born” – “For I have given birth to him from the water.” [Hence the suffix –mses of the Pharaoh’s names, means “born of,” so Ramses is “born of Ra”.] His name was Egyptian, and having grown up in Pharaoh’s house, his language and clothes must have been Egyptian as well. Hence when the daughters of Yitro see him, they tell their father “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds.” (2:19)
And yet. It was this Moshe, this Moshe who had no external markers of his Israelite identity, that was to become the leader of Bnei Yisrael. And the reason was not because of external definition, not because he lived apart from those who were not his people, but because he was driven by an inner mission, an inner drive, a deep love and care for his people and for justice. “And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brother…” (2:11)
To be redeemer, once must have inner definition, inner drive. To be a redeemed people, we must have a purpose, a mission which defines us. “When you take the people, the am, out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (3:12). Our true identity as an am would not be defined by Pharaoh, it would be defined by our relationship to God, by our receiving of the Torah. “And I will take you to Me as a people, li l’am.” (6:7) In the end we are an ‘am not because of Pharaoh, but because God has called us to be God’s am.
And hence, when we are about to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we are not only called a people, but a nation. “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priest and a holy nation, goy kadosh.” (19:6). Our identity as a nation is to be holy. Not to be separate, but to be in this world, to stand for God and to emulate God:
“For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?
And what nation is there so great, who has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day?”
To receive the Torah, to live by the Torah, to connect to God, to emulate God – that is our true identity as a nation. It is a challenge, undoubtedly, to do this while fully engaged and integrated into the larger world. To do so requires a strong inner definition; it is not for those who need to be defined by others, or who need to define themselves by being apart, by what they are against. However, for those who have – as the Torah wants and demands that we have – a strong inner definition, for those who define themselves by what they are for – those are the ones who will carry God’s message and God’s Torah into the larger world, who will engage the world and bring kedusha to the world. Let us all strive to be who we are because of what we are for.