The Names

Last Saturday, Rabbi Oppenheimer spoke on the devastation caused by the tsunami in South Asia. Working from memory, I will try to capture the essence of his very fine sermon, although I will be unable to truly do it justice.

Rabbi Oppenheimer began by urging everyone to do what they can to support humanitarian relief efforts; he suggested Portland-based Mercy Corps. He then emphasized that any attempt to "explain" the mysterious acts of G-d is doomed to failure, as Job discovered centuries ago. From the voice in the whirlwind, Job received the great smackdown of all time: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Speak, if you have knowledge of it...."

There is something about the sea, the rabbi noted, that draws us: its sameness, its oneness. Even though a complex ecosystem is concealed beneath the waves, to our eyes the sea appears pure and whole. It reminds us of the undifferentiated unity from which the universe was created; and this is why so many people live by the sea - not only sailors and fishermen who depend on it for their livelihood, but vacationers and retirees who fill the tourist hotels and build their summer homes there.

While it is natural that we are drawn to the sea, it is also an essential fact of our existence that we are not part of it. We live on dry land, and just as we no longer belong to the sea, neither do we belong to the realm of the undifferentiated. We are all unique individuals, each with a name, each with a life, each with a special place in creation.

Turning to the week's Torah portion - the beginning of Exodus - Rabbi Oppenheimer reflected on the opening passages of the book: a list of the names of the sons of Israel who migrated to Egypt (from which the book of Exodus takes its Hebrew name, Shemoth, or "names"). This is to stress the importance of the individual - even in a time when Pharaoh's regime would come to enslave the whole Jewish population.

Eventually Pharaoh commanded that all male Israelite children be killed at birth, by drowning in the Nile. And it was from that very Nile that Moses, the future leader of the Jewish people, would be rescued. Moses seemingly made a career of doing battle with water, too - turning it to blood, bringing frogs out of it, and finally splitting it for the escaping Jews.

No one knows how many lives were lost to the Nile by Pharaoh's command. What is recorded is the Egyptian regime's determination to dehumanize its slaves by turning them into mindless automata, mere working machines. The Nazis did the same thing with their concentration camps. What the Torah comes to tell us - Rabbi Oppenheimer explained - is that each human being is unique and precious. We must never allow our lives to be swallowed up by the demands of industrial society - that's why the Sabbath is so important, because it forces us to break away from the work week and reclaim our own sense of self.

Tragedies remind us of how fleeting, and how sacred, life is. Returning to the victims of the tsunami, the rabbi said: "Each of those hundred thousand people had a name. Each one had a family; each one was special to someone."