A Good Name | Parashat Shemot

Genealogy is the study of families, family history and the tracing of their lineage. It has always been a popular hobby to trace family stories and history but with the advent of DNA testing, curiosity about people’s lineage and ancestry has really taken off. There are multiple websites where individuals can upload their family trees and post inquiries about “lost” family members or seek to fill in the holes of family histories. There are clubs that trade information about specific villages, towns, shtetls, and communities. And because after DNA testing, genetic information is now widely and easily available, families who have been long lost from one another or didn’t even know they were connected have been able to meet, unite, and form new and powerful bonds.

Jewish genealogy is a particularly powerful tool that can help strengthen the Jewish people and our Jewish stories. I have heard of so many families reuniting especially post Shoa that didn’t know a branch had survived at all and they re-discovered one another because of Jewish genealogy, some sleuthing, and asking questions!

Because the Jewish people have immigrated through the centuries and millennia from one place to another, often because we were forcibly expelled from where we lived by the ruling powers, Jewish genealogy offers us a window into our past and our people. It’s fills out the blank spaces on our family trees. And because of the DNA testing, there are many people discovering that they are Jewish for the first time! This is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our people, increase Jewish learning and knowledge by outreach to this group and ultimately grow our Jewish population.

This week’s Torah portion Shemot, begins the book of Exodus. In chapter one, the opening verses begin with a listing of the family heads who came down to Egypt to relocate because of the famine in the land of Canaan at the invitation of their brother Joseph. This book of Torah opens with a genealogical listing providing us a bridge from the book of Genesis and its stories to the new book of the Torah, Exodus.

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came.” (Ex.1::1) 

And it then lists the eleven brothers of Jacob:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher and tells us that there were 70 souls that came down to Egypt together. This is quite a family tree!  This is a large group to people who move together to a new place. Imagine an entire community being uprooted and relocating. Our ancestors are refugees from famine the Torah tells us.

The book of Exodus opens with a bit of our family history. It is the history of the Jewish people. It helps to lay the foundation for what will next unfold in the ongoing story of our origins; That we grew from 70 people, 70 refugees, to a strong and mighty community in Egypt so much so that we were perceived as a threat to the Pharaoh who would enslave us.

We preserve the names of our ancestors, the tribes, the leaders throughout the Torah. Often, we see these lists of names whether in Genesis, Exodus, or later in the Tanach as in First Chronicles and we think why read them? Why study them? Why bother? It doesn’t tell the story. It is not the narrative. It doesn’t seem to move the story along.

But by preserving these genealogical listing in the Tanach, we learn so much about our history, our people and these lists are often indicators of future conflicts and quarrels and matches. But most importantly, when we can see our own names at the end of these listing, we can see ourselves in the great line of Jewish history. All of it is our family tree. And it doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew by birth or a Jew by Choice. You are written in that story and on that family tree.

This same ideal is embodied in how we name our children and our selves. We are given our Hebrew/Jewish name with that of our parents’ names. If we choose Judaism, our spiritual parents, Abraham and Sarah, become our parents furthering this deep bond to the Jewish people’s story as your story.

This week’s parsha, Shemot (Names) indicates something else as well. Just as we became familiar with the first generations of our patriarchs and matriarchs, it isn’t just a new king of Egypt, the Pharaoh that arises, it is a new generation of the Hebrew people that arises. We must link our story now to their story. Thus, in the parsha, we are introduced to the newest branches in our Jewish family tree. These are the descendants of the tribe of Levi, Yocheved and Levi, Shifrah and Puah, Miriam, Aaron and Moses.

From generation to generation is more than just a phrase, it is a sacred principle that opens our eyes to our history, our inheritance, and our people. L’dor vador, from generation to generation, is a principle to safeguard; that no matter what happens in the world around us, we commit to preserving our Jewish family and traditions. And most importantly, in our day and time, this vibrant, ongoing story, is one that is not limited to one place and one time but is a story repeated and celebrated around the globe, connecting us in hope, faith and yes, as global Jewish family.  

As we read parsha Shemot this week, perhaps you will take some time to review your own family tree, or tell a family story, or a bit of your history to the next generation and pass the names on and something about their lives. These are the names….



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).