by Rabbi Steven Schwarzman
(AJNews) – Years ago, when I was flying to Israel, the security agent began the check-in conversation with me. I was young and had lived enough time in Israel to be a little chutzpadik. So when he asked me about my luggage, I didn’t wait for the follow-up questions. I impatiently blurted out that no one had given me anything, and that I had packed it myself.
He didn’t react in anger. Instead, he quietly reminded me that sometimes people make innocent assumptions about what and who is safe. And he asked me to take a few minutes to look through my luggage myself to make sure that there was nothing there that I hadn’t put there.
It was a good lesson in humility, and a good reminder of the importance of what he and I were both responsible for.
In our Torah reading this week, we begin the Book of Exodus. Oddly, the book of our people’s redemption from slavery begins not with a dramatic overture. Instead, it starts with the names of the children of Jacob/Israel who went down to Egypt. It only takes ten verses for the slavery to begin. But the book begins with the names.
Perhaps, in a literary sense, it’s helpful to see this going down to Egypt at the beginning of the book, so that when their descendants are eventually redeemed, we will feel a sense of closure. But there are other ways the book could begin that would likely make for a more sensational read.
By starting with the names of the members of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt, which we already know from Genesis, the Torah makes it personal. And, as Rashi explains, this repeated mention of their names teaches us that God cared about each of them – and by extension each of us – individually.
And this matters, because neither our ancestors who went down to Egypt, nor we, are anonymous. You and I matter to God, and we matter to each other. We are important, and just as the Torah took the time to mention our ancestors by name, we, too, need to see each other with the same kind of appreciation. Each of us has gone down to our personal Egypts. And each of us can find redemption.
After I checked the contents of my suitcase, lo those many years ago, I was able to confirm to the agent that all was in order. Everything that I had put there was still there, and nothing was there that shouldn’t be. But it was only by looking at each item that I was able to fulfill this important task and begin my journey.
Let’s look at each of the people around us, in our families, our shuls, our community, indeed the world, and remember to see them as the important people that they are. Let’s not make assumptions. Let’s really try to see them and understand them. And let’s insist that others see us as the individuals that we are, too. If we, or they, need a gentle reminder now and then, that’s okay. We can deliver this reminder as gently as the security agent did some 35 or 40 years ago.
Rabbi Steven Schwarzman is the spiritual leader at Beth Shalom Synagogue, Edmonton’s conservative egalitarian congregation.