Parshas Shemos - Counting Stars
“These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt… And all the souls descendant of Yaakov were seventy.” (Shemos 1:1-5)
Rashi comments, “Although God had already counted them in their lifetime, He again counted them at the time of their death, to express His love for them. For they are like the stars which He takes out and brings in by number and name; as it is written (Isiah 40:26)”He takes out their hosts by number, He calls them each by their name.”
As we head into Golus we are once again counted and named by God. Rashi makes it clear that this is an act of love. Somehow, by counting and naming us we will be able to hold onto this feeling through a long and bitter exile.
Several questions come to mind. What exactly is the inner meaning behind counting and naming? What is the difference between counting and naming? How will this help us on our journey through the “smelting pit” of Mitzrayim?
Counting Every Child
If you have ever been a camp counselor taking your bunk on a trip you know what it means to count. Especially with the younger campers we find ourselves counting our assigned campers every couple of minutes. Did all of us get off the ride? Did we all make it to the next ride together? Why does that one camper keep wandering off?
Counting is our way of expressing that every one of us is important. “And all the souls descendant of Yaakov were seventy.” Not all people are gifted with the same talents. Some of us are exceptionally unique destined to live great lives. But on trip day the counselor is not responsible for one child more than another. The responsibility of the counselor is to return every child safely back to camp. From this perspective, each child is equally important to the counselor. When I was a counselor many years ago our Camp Director (a person I deeply admire), Mr. Richie Altabe, was known to tempt our campers to follow him to the canteen in the middle of an activity. Depending on how long it took the counselor to realize a camper was missing the counselor could either be rewarded or disciplined. To be honest, I was more alert when Mr. Altabe was around but we did get into the habit of counting our campers on a regular basis. It didn’t matter if he “stole” our best athlete or our laziest camper, either way the onus was on us to ensure that all of our campers were with us at all times.
I would add that as the relationship becomes more meaningful the counting starts to take on added significance. Now, with my own children, as we head somewhere as a family I instinctively count my children to make sure that they are all safe. I imagine that there is a feeling of comfort that our children have knowing that each one of them is important to their parents. We are a unit and if even one of us our missing, the unit is fundamentally lacking. At this point it is cliché to point out that if even one letter is missing the sefer Torah is pasul but it is cliché because it is true. Not one letter of the Torah is more significant than any other but if even one is missing the Torah is not a Torah.
What’s In A Name?
In many ways naming is the opposite of counting. Our name is what makes us unique. When someone says “hey you” we are just another person. When we are called by our name it is us that they actually need. Chazal teach us that we get a special ruach hakodesh when it comes to naming our children. I can tell you from my experience (and I have heard it said from others as well) that when you choose a name for your child it just feel right. Our name is not simply a handle by which we are called but rather it reflects the inner reality of every one of us. It is not a coincidence that one of the reasons we were redeemed from Mitzrayim is because we did not change our names. If a name were simply a handle than it would not be of much significance that we stuck with our Jewish names but since our names reflect our pnimiyus it is a tremendous achievement.
Someone I deeply respect once told me that all good communication starts with a soft start. Give a compliment, focus on the positive, speak softly and you will see that the other person will open up. I have found that one of the most beautiful ways to start a conversation is to gently call a person by their name. It is a communication that the person you are speaking with is valuable, worthy, important. Whereas counting means we are an important part of a group, naming speaks to the unique talents that each of us were endowed with. It is the recognition of those talents that enables us to feel like we can succeed in the mission for which we were placed on this earth.
Surviving and Thriving in Golus
A dear friend of mine told me that though his mother has long since passed he can still remember the sound of her voice and the way she spoke with him. I cannot imagine the loneliness that sometimes grips him but he has shared with me that in times of great sorrow he can feel her voice well up inside of him and somehow it makes him feel safe. We cannot imagine the pain and suffering that occurred in Mitzrayim. Even a cursory perusal through the Medrashim indicates that it made the Holocaust seem humane. Pharaoh’s cruelty was beyond anything the human imagination could fathom. The golus of Mitzrayim lasted for 210 years though it was supposed to last for longer. We simply could not hold on for even another moment. I think somehow this reality is lost on many of us including myself. The pain of Mitzrayim was so great that it nearly extinguished our Jewish soul.. Who among us could understand what it means to fall into the lowest levels of tumah? It begs the question, how did we survive? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Hashem counted and named us as we went down to Mitzrayim. It is as if God is saying to us, “We are going to be separated for a while. In the midst of your turmoil it will be difficult to remember who you are. You will look for me day and night but you will not be able to see me through the pain and the suffering you are enduring. But know this. Each one of you is an indispensable part of our nation. If we lose even one of you, we have lost everyone. Each one of you brings unique talents to this golus. None of you are identical to each other. If you each contribute in your own unique way we will be able to survive this together.”
This is how Klal Yisrael survived in the Golus of Mitzrayim. It is a roadmap for how we ought to survive and even thrive in the Golus that we find ourselves in today. More and more we need to teach our children that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They are one of many but without them we cannot be whole. It is the message we need to share with those that are unaffiliated as well as with those that are already within the observant camp. Children who are only taught about their unique contribution will ultimately end up with a narcissistic worldview. On the other hand, we cannot just teach our youth that they are a part of a tzibbur. Each one of them has a unique talent that needs to be nurtured until it blossoms. A cookie cutter chinuch that demands that our children see the world in the same way, one that doesn’t place a priority on the child themselves, is destined to fail. Not only will the child feel stifled as they long for an outlet for their natural creativity but we as a community will have lost out as well. After all, after 120 they won’t ask us why we weren’t Zusia. They will ask us, how did we use our talents to build God’s world. I was blessed to have parents and Rabbeim in my life who struck this balance. I was gifted with a strong sense of Jewish identity but also encouraged to find my path, even when it differed from theirs. My parents take great pride in the fact that each one of their children sees the world in a different way. My Rebbe shlit”a, Rav Yehuda Parnes, a staunch Litvak if there ever was one, encouraged me to learn chassidus. He often said that we would know we were ready to leave shiur when we could ask one hundred percent of the questions he would ask and offer fifty percent of the same answers. I’ve often wondered why my Rebbe stopped at fifty percent. Why did he not demand of us that we be capable of giving the same answers as he did every single time? I think my Rebbe was teaching us to follow our own creativity. He wanted us to master his derech halimud. He wanted us to know what a meaningful question was and what was just a klutz kasha as he would say. Ultimately he wanted us to know what answers he would have given but he also wanted us to think for ourselves. To find our own voice and to follow our own path. It was perhaps the greatest gift I received from him and for that I am eternally grateful.