And these are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Yaakov; every man came with his household. (Sefer Shemot 1:1)
- Sefer Shemot’s strange opening
Sefer Shemot opens with the above passage. The passage begins with the phrase ״And these are the names". The use of the word "and" suggests that this passage is a continuation of previous material. In other words, this passage continues some previous discussion in the Torah. What is the discussion that is continued with the first passage of Sefer Shemot?
And Yosef dwelt in Egypt, he, and his father's house; and Yosef lived a hundred and ten years.
And Yosef saw Ephraim's children of the third generation; the children also of Machir the son of Menasheh were born upon Yosef's knees. (Sefer Beresheit 50:22-23)
- The rapid growth of Bnai Yisrael in Egypt
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers a response. The response presents some problems. However, it provides an interesting contrast to some of the other responses that will be considered. He suggests that this passage is connected to the closing passages in Sefer Beresheit. In those passages, the Torah concludes its discussion of Yosef's life. It explains that Yosef lived one hundred ten years. Although he was the second from the youngest of his brothers – only his brother Binyamin was younger – he predeceased his brothers. Nonetheless, he had the opportunity to witness the emergence of three generations of his own descendants. He was alive for the births of his great-grandsons. The final passage of Sefer Beresheit describes Yosef's death, his embalming, and his placement in an – aron – a burial casket that would remain in Egypt until the return of Bnai Yisrael to their homeland.
The implication of these passages is that Yosef was blessed with experiencing the emergence of three generations of descendants. This might suggest that this blessing was unique to Yosef and not shared by his brothers. Sefer Shemot addresses this issue. It tells us that Bnai Yisrael descended to Egypt as a small clan composed of seventy individuals. However, it quickly grew. The group that entered Egypt and the generations that followed them bore many children. The clan quickly grew into a nation.
According to Ibn Ezra, Sefer Shemot begins with the word "and" to connect its opening passages to those at the end of Sefer Beresheit. Through making this connection, the Torah corrects the impression made by the final passages of Sefer Beresheit. Yosef was not unique.
And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had gotten in the land of Cana’an, and came into Egypt, Yaakov, and all his descendants with him; his sons, and his sons' sons with him, his daughters, and his sons' daughters, and all his descendants he brought with him into Egypt. (Sefer Beresheit 46:6-7)
- The antecedents of exile
In Ibn Ezra’s approach, the word "and" creates a connection between two sets of passages – those opening Sefer Shemot and those closing Sefer Beresheit. Rabbaynu Yitzchak Abravanel suggests that the word "and" connects more than two short sets of passages. It communicates a much broader connection between the narratives of the first two books of the Torah.
According to Abravanel, the word "and" communicates that the events in Sefer Shemot should be understood as a direct result of those in Sefer Beresheit. The final chapters of Sefer Beresheit describe the development of the brothers’ resentment toward Yosef. It describes the brothers selling Yosef into bondage. Yosef eventually emerges as the virtual ruler of Egypt and saves his family from starvation. He brings his father, his brothers, and their families to Egypt and he cares for them. Sefer Shemot describes the descent of Bnai Yisrael into bondage and the eventual redemption of the Jewish people. According to Abravanel, the word "and" communicates to us that the bondage and redemption of Bnai Yisrael that are described in Sefer Shemot are the consequence of the events in Sefer Beresheit.
- Egypt and the process of nation building
The difficulty with Abravanel's suggestion is that the Torah is communicating a message that is self evident. Any reader understands that the conflict between Yosef and his brothers, the emergence of Yosef as leader of Egypt, and the measures that he took to save his family from famine led to the descent of Bnai Yisrael into bondage. What is the Torah communicating to us by specifically drawing our attention to this sequence of events through its use of the word "and"?
Perhaps, the answer is that the Torah is providing the solution to a mystery. The narrative of Sefer Beresehit leaves the reader with a question. This narrative strongly suggests that the events described are not just the result of human intrigue, conflict, and good fortune. The narrative is describing the hand of G-d operating behind a veil. Hashem manipulates events and leads the brothers, by means of their conflicts and experiences, toward a specific end – the exile of the Jewish people from the land of their fathers to the land of Egypt.
However, the narrative does not provide an explanation for why this exile was necessary. When Sefer Beresheit ends, the reader is left with this unsolved mystery. But then Sefer Shemot opens with the word "and". This word alerts us that indeed our sense that part of the story was left untold is correct. Now the story will continue. In this continuation of the narrative we will discover the solution to the mystery.
The specific solution is not clearly and overtly stated. However, Sefer Shemot does describe a process of nation building. A small clan becomes a great nation. How the suffering and bondage of Egypt effectuated this transformation is not explicitly stated. The reader must study the story, contemplate it, and seek the specific answers. However, the word "and" tells the reader that herein lies the answer. It invites the reader to study the material and find the answers.
And G-d created man in His own image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them. (Sefer Beresheit 1:27)
- Two books with a single theme
Ibn Ezra suggested that the word "and" connects two sets of passages. Abravanel suggested it connects major portions of Sefer Beresheit and Sefer Shemot. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – Netziv – suggests that the word communicates an even more extensive connection between Sefer Shemot and Sefer Beresheit.
We are accustomed to referring to the five books of the Torah as Beresheit, Shemot, VaYikra, BeMidbar and Devarim. However, the Sages had other names that they used when referring to the books of the Torah. One of these Sages – BaHaG – uses an alternative name for most books of the Torah. For example, he refers to Sefer VaYikra as the Book of Priests. This name reflects the content of the book. Much of the content deals with laws that are related to the duties and obligations of the kohanim – the priests. However, BaHaG refers to Sefer Shemot as the second book of the Torah. In other words, instead of assigning it a name of its own, he identifies it as second to Beresheit in the books of the Torah. According to BaHaG, why does this book of the Torah not deserve its own name?
Netziv explains that the designation as second book of the Torah communicates that together with Sefer Beresehit it composes a single story told in two parts. Sefer Beresheit and Sefer Shemot are to be understood as a single narrative. What is their unifying theme?
Netziv responds to this question by quoting numerous statements of the Sages. However, rather than reviewing these statements, let us consider the overall narrative of Sefer Beresheit. The sefer opens with the account of creation. The account gives special attention to the creation and early development of man and woman. Only human beings are created in the image of Hashem. The human being is endowed with unique intellectual capacity and free will.
As the narrative continues, it emerges that Hashem has expectations of humanity. We have freedom to choose but not all of our choices are deemed by Hashem as appropriate. Eventually, one individual – Avraham – emerges who uses his wisdom and desire for understanding to find Hashem. Hashem enters into a relationship with Avraham and makes a covenant with him and his descendants.
The theme that emerges is that the universe has a design. That design relates to the human being. The human being is its most fundamental component and humanity has a mission. This mission is to seek understanding and to enter into a relationship with Hashem.
When Sefer Beresheit ends, this mission has not been achieved. Only a few individuals have reached the exalted goal that underlies creation and gives it meaning. However, overall, humanity lives in darkness. The creation narrative is an uncompleted story. All of the characters have been introduced but the plot has not unfolded.
Netziv explains that Sefer Shemot completes the creation narrative. The Jewish people are redeemed from Egypt and they arrive at Sinai. They experience revelation. This is not only the story of the emergence of the Jewish nation. This narrative is also describing the fulfillment of human destiny. Bnai Yisrsel stood at Sinai and experienced revelation not only as a people but also as the agents of humanity.
According to Netziv, BaHaG refers to Sefer Shemot as the second book of the Torah in order to communicate that its story completes the Sefer Beresheit narrative. It describes the arrival of humanity at its destination. At Sinai a journey initiated by Adam and Chavah comes to its end. Creation finds meaning and purpose.
According to the view of Netziv, the word "and" that opens Sefer Shemot communicates to us that we are not beginning a new story. We are reading the second part of the creation narrative that began unfolding in Sefer Beresheit.
- Living a meaningful life
Netziv’s view has enormous implications regarding how we chose to live our lives. Not all choices are equal. They are differentiated not only by their impact on our happiness, but also by their meaningfulness. Some choices are consistent with the design of creation; others are not. Sadly, much of our attention and energy is devoted to considering and weighing the impact of our decisions on our happiness. Less attention is devoted to considering the challenge of living a significant and meaningful life.
For many of us our values and our religious life are secondary to our professional commitments and our other passions. Our relationship with Hashem is relegated to the time available for it and is far down our list of priorities. However, according to Netziv, this relationship is the fundamental source of creation’s meaning and it is our mission as human beings to embrace this relationship.
However, we are each endowed with the capacity to make choices and thereby, to make changes. We must believe in ourselves. We must believe in our capacity to be different than we are and to become more than we are at the moment. When we embrace this faith in ourselves, we embark on a lifelong journey of authentic growth.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Extended Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 1:1.
 Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Sehmot, 1:1.
 Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Beresheit, Introduction.