Parshat Shemot: Forging an Identity in Egypt

Four Merits

The sages1 tell us that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt in merit of four things:

  1. They did not change their names (Reuven and Shimon came down to Egypt and Reuven and Shimon were redeemed).
  2. They did not change their language—they continued to speak in Hebrew.
  3. They barred themselves from speaking evil about one another (lashon hara).
  4. They barred themselves from improper sexual conduct.

We have a principle that whenever there is a list, the final item on the list carries the most weight. In our case, this means that their guarding of the sexual covenant2 was most instrumental in retaining their identity and making the redemption possible.

Four Merits and Havayah

Since there are 4 merits enumerated, it is natural that we see how they correspond to the four letters of Havayah, God’s essential Name.

yud (י) wisdom they did not change their names
hei (ה) understanding they did not change their language
vav (ו) beauty they barred themselves from speaking evil about one another
hei (ה) kingdom they barred themselves from improper sexual conduct

Let us explain this correspondence.

Yud and hei: The first two merits follow the same formula “they did not change….” This illustrates that indeed the first two letters of Havayahyud and hei—are an independent pair; indeed, they form a holy Name in themselves, י־ה .3 These two letters correspond to the intellectual faculties, wisdom and understanding. Immutability—the possibility of remaining static and unchanging—is a quality of mindfulness and resoluteness of one’s intellectual power. The Jewish people’s ability to remain unchanged emulates God’s transcendent aspect, about which the prophet says, “I, Havayah, have not changed and you the children of Jacob have not perished.”4

Yud: Furthermore, in Hebrew, an object’s name (i.e., a proper noun) is its most essential predicate, closest to the thing-in-and-of-itself (the etzem, in Hebrew). Likewise, the sefirahof wisdom is the first revelation of Divinity, God’s first and most essential predicate, which is inseparable from Himself. For this reason, the letter yud has the form of a point, like the first dot of ink5 formed when a pen touches paper and the beginning of revelation of thought through writing occurs.

Hei: The Hebrew language is the language used by God to create the world. Put another way, the power inherent in it creates being. Similarly, the first hei in Havayah represents understanding and the World of Creation, the beginning of being. In Kabbalah, the five sources of the letters are situated in understanding.6

Vav and hei: In the original Hebrew, the final two merits also begin with the same phrase, “They barred themselves from…” (שֶלֹא הָיָה בַּהֵן… ). Again, the last two letters of Havayahform a pair and represent the revealed dimensions of this Name.

Vav: Guarding one’s tongue and never speaking evil about another is the hallmark of the sixsefirot represented by the letter vav in Havayah (the value of vav is 6)—even though they are six, they are represented by a single sefirah (beauty) and a single letter (vav). Beauty is a state of composition, in which even opposites come together to form a more complete whole. The sense of unity between the Jews in Egypt prevented them from speaking ill of one another.

Hei: The final hei represents the sefirah of kingdom and the nukva, the feminine principle. Sexual purity and family purity is first and foremost dependent on the woman (and the feminine aspect of the husband). The sages learn that this trait was in the merit of our matriarch Sarah, “Sarah descended to Egypt and barred her sexuality, and all the Jewish women followed in her merit and were barred too.”

Thus, the four merits that shielded our forefathers from being swallowed by the abominations of Egypt correspond to the four letters of Havayah.

All in the First Verse

Furthermore, these four merits are alluded to in the first verse of our parshah:

These are the names of the children of Israel coming into Egypt, with Jacob, each came with his household.

The first two words, “These are the names,” allude to the origin of the fourth and most important merit, that they barred themselves from improper sexual relations. The value of these two words in Hebrew (וְאֵלֶה שְׁמוֹת ) exactly equals the value of the Hebrew idiom for familial peace and harmony, שְׁלוֹם בַּיִת !7 The letters in “peace” (שָׁלוֹם ), appear in these two words explicitly, ואלה שמות . The rest of the letters, אהות , spell the word “And you” (וְאָתָּה ) or “[sexual] craving” (תַּאֲוָה ).

Names

“The names of the Children of Israel” alludes of course to their retaining their names. The sages describe this (in Aramaic) as, “Reuven and Shimon descended, Reuven and Shimon ascended.” The initials of the Aramaic words for “descended” (נַחְתּוּן ) and “ascended” (סַלְקוּן) spell the word “miracle” (נֵס ), indicating that Hebrew names contain the miraculous power of the world of Emanation to bring a person out of exile.8

Language

“Coming into Egypt” suggests that they did not change their language. The commentaries ask why the verb “coming” is in the present tense and not in the more appropriate past tense, for when the Book of Exodus begins the children of Israel had already been in Egypt for many years. This grammatical question about this word suggests that it indeed alludes to language. What we learn from this is that as long as a person retains his mother tongue (mama loshen, in Yiddish9) he continues to feel that he has just arrived from his homeland and therefore does not fall under the influence of the local culture.

On an even deeper level, the sefirah of understanding is related to space (wisdom corresponds to time—temporal order of precedence—which exists even before space). Thus, retaining their language, which as we saw is related to the sefirah of understanding also helped them retain their sense of sacred space—the Land of Israel. For the same reason, the Jewish people continued to be known as Hebrews throughout their exile in Egypt, a name that has meaning only in the Land of Israel (it means literally, someone who has crossed the river, specifically the Jordan River).

Speech

“With Jacob” alludes to the merit of barring themselves from speaking evil about one another. Jacob is the archetypal soul of beauty, which earlier we saw corresponds to this merit. The Torah describes Jacob (before his sojourn with his uncle, Laban) as “An earnest man dwelling in tents [of Torah].” Before his encounter with Laban, Jacob did not know how to act fraudulently.10 In the Tikunei Zohar, the sefirah of beauty is described as “the body.” The Jewish people are likened to the organs of a single body. As long as their sense of identity is strong—that they are all “with Jacob”—they will not hurt one another, just as the left hand will not cut the right hand, as long as the mind is working and both hands identify themselves as parts of the same organism.

Family

Finally, “each came with his household,” explicitly corresponds to the merit of family purity and barring themselves from improper sexual conduct. A woman is called her husband’s household (בֵּיתוֹ ). Even a couple that lives in Egypt, which in Hebrew literally means “constricting,” symbolizing the trying and constricting nature of their surroundings, as long as they remain unconditionally and endlessly devoted to one another, they will emerge with wealth and possessions as did the Jewish people from Egypt. This was the oath God made Abraham when he revealed the nature of the exile in Egypt to him.

Indeed, the gematria of the 3 words “each came with his household” (אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ ) is exactly 3 times “Abraham” (אַבְרָהָם ). Abraham himself is the archetypal soul of loving-kindness and love, indicating that love between husband and wife can overcome all forms of spiritual and physical Egypts. The endless love between a husband and wife is a reflection of their endless love for God.

(based on the daily dvar Torah for Sunday of parshat Shemot, 5768)

Notes:

1Psikta Derav Kahana 11:6 on the verse in Song of Songs 4:12.

2. The Hebrew term used by the sages to describe this is גְדוּר עֶרְוָה , whose value is “Eve” times Havayahחוה · י־הוה . “Eve” (19) itself is equal to the letters used to fill Havayah in itsalef-filling (יוד הא ואו הא ). The total value of the alef-filling is thus, 19 ┴ 26 = 45, also the value of Adam (אָדָם ), representing the rectified initial (and final) reality of mankind.

3. See What You Need to Know About Kabbalah, pp. 148-9.

4. Malachi 3:6.

5. In Hebrew, the word for “ink” (דְיוֹ ) is a permutation of the name of this letter, yud (יוֹד ).

6Pardes Rimonim 23:1. Arizal’s Likutei TorahTehilim 53.

7. Known today colloquially as “Shalom in the Home.”

8. This is true today as it was then. If a person is experiencing special difficulty, it would be proper for him to insist on being called by his Hebrew name, especially if he or she has until now been known by a non-Hebrew equivalent.

9. Today, for many Jews outside the Land of Israel, mama loshen may indeed be Hebrew, while in a strange case of historical reversal, to retain an autonomous identity in the Land of Israel, free of the negative influence of the anti-religious establishment, it may be that this is Yiddish.

10. Because of his earnest nature, his mother Rivkah had to motivate him to steal Esau’s blessings and instructed him in all the details of how to succeed.

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