By Rabbi Dan Lewin
“Don’t forget where you came from!”
When parents say this it usually means “don’t forget the values with which we raised you.” Socially, it may imply that after you become rich and famous, don’t forget your humble beginnings. Or that people who helped you at the beginning of the journey should be appreciated, not forgotten. Either way, keeping in mind the origins keeps them honest and motivated.
The same advice holds true in the journey of the Jewish people. Our customs are filled with reminders — “don’t forget where you came from.” The most notable takes place on the night of Pesach, a time devoted to recalling the Exodus story, pointing to our humble beginnings and ultimate deliverance.
Names tell stories
The Hebrew title of this week’s Torah portion is Shemot — names. The commentaries explain (Leviticus Rabbah 32:5) that the deliverance from Egypt occurred in the merit of four virtues. The first merit mentioned is that the children of Israel didn’t change their names.
Hebrew names express messages. Two clear biblical examples are Joseph’s two sons, wherein the names of his sons relate his personal story. The oldest, Menashe, recalls his lonely struggle as a young Hebrew servant arriving in Egypt: “God has caused me to forget my toil and my father’s house.” It signals Joseph’s ability to survive in a foreign environment. The second son, Ephraim, is named because “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” The name signifies a higher achievement, a story not only of preservation, but of prosperity.
The culmination occurs as Joseph reunites with his father and brothers and generously provides for them. The episode of the children of Israel seemingly reaches a high point. As Jacob nears his final days, he calls Joseph to him, along with Joseph’s sons Menashe and Ephraim. The purpose was to impart a blessing for future generations.
Remembering the source
Jacob blesses his descendants, saying that they should be known by the name Israel and the names of the patriarchs, and “may they multiply abundantly like fish …” There are many ways to connote having many children. Why fish?
The Talmud explains that since fish are completely covered by water, they are protected from the gaze of “the evil eye.” A more profound explanation is that fish cannot be separated from water, their life-force. They are submerged in their source.
With these words, Jacob provided not only a blessing, but also the recipe for how to receive it. The key to attaining blessings is humility. Humility comes from being conscious of the source for life’s blessings.
The opposite symbolism is found in this week’s parashah, in reference to the Egyptian culture. Things have changed drastically for the children of Israel. After being enslaved, the cruel decree arrived: “Any boy who is born should be thrown into the river.” In addition to the literal meaning, this command to throw the Jewish children into the Nile can be understood metaphorically.
The Jewish people had come from the Land of Israel, which yielded its bounty sparingly. Crops depend on the infrequent and unpredictable rainfall. In Egypt, the Nile consistently overflowed its banks, providing water for the irrigation for the fertile valley, the foundation of the Egyptian economy. The Nile was recognized as the source of the great prosperity of the land. For this reason, the river was worshipped by the Egyptians.
The entire Exodus story would be orchestrated to undo that mentality of becoming too caught up in natural determinants. In fact, the foundation of the second of the Ten Commandments — the negation of idolatry — is the ability to draw a distinction between the prime creative source and instruments of nature. While the crudest form is worship of planetary systems or statues, modern-day applications of mistaking the intermediary for the source abound.
Here, the softer and broader sense of “worshipping the Nile” is developing an inflated feeling of self-sufficiency, forgetting the source for all blessings. The remedy of “remember where you come from” is not only an instruction to remember your past; it’s an ongoing perspective to remain conscious of the source for existence and prosperity, and the key to receiving blessings.