In its first Pasuk, Parashat Shemot states, “VeEileh Shemot Bnei Yisrael HaBa’im Mitzraymah Eit Ya'akov," "These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt, with Ya’akov” (Shemot 1:1). The final phrase, “with Ya’akov," seems unnecessary. Don't we all know that Bnei Yisrael refers to Ya'akov’s family? Secondly, the next Pesukim go on to list Ya'akov's sons who went to Egypt with him. Why does the text mention all twelve tribes? What does the repetition of information we already knew add?
Rav Shamson Refa’el Hirsch offers a beautiful interpretation. He comments on the odd use of the word “Eit” to mean “with.” This word suggests that all of the twelve tribes were deeply connected and attached to Ya'akov. Rav Hirsch also says that this is the secret to Am Yisrael’s strength and survival. Each son had his own life and family, yet the twelve Shevatim still remained joined and in unison with Ya'akov.
I would like to expand on Rav Hirsh’s explanation. What he points out is actually one of the founding principles of our faith. He is making a comment about family, saying that, in essence, all of Am Yisrael is a single unit. As a nation we are one and our strength stems from that unity. If we stand divided we will not have this aspect of family, and our success will be limited until we can join together.
There is a deeper meaning to this Parashah. The Pesukim at the beginning of the Parashah repeatedly mention how strong Am Yisrael became and how Par'oh feared us for that. This is, perhaps, the most unclear part of the text. What does it mean that Par'oh feared us? The Pesukim mention that Bnei Yisrael became astoundingly powerful, but it couldn’t have been military power that had Par'oh worried. Why should Par'oh, the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world, fear a single family? Was it just our numbers that he feared? We had only entered the land with 70 people. Our numbers did grow dramatically, but that still doesn’t explain why he would be so scared.
A close reading of Par'oh’s fear sheds light on this issue. The Pesukim recount, "VaYomer El Amo Hineih Am Bnei Yisrael Rav VeAtzum Mimenu. Havah Nitchakemah Lo Pen Yirbeh," "He said to his nation, ‘Behold! The people, the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than us. Come, let us outsmart it, lest it become numerous" (Shemot 1:9). Why does Par’oh refer to Am Yisrael as “it,” in the singular? One answer can solve all of these questions. Par'oh in this Parashah was not concerned about the strength of Israel militarily or even in numbers. He was worried about the fact that Bnei Yisrael were joined together. He was perhaps even jealous of the unity of Am Yisrael and therefore held a grudge against them for it. Par'oh made a mistake, of which almost all of our enemies are guilty. When enemies try to divide us, we often grow closer. So many of our enemies mistakenly feel that if they could divide and conquer Bnei Yisrael they would defeat us, but they could not be more wrong. It is at our darkest hours when we are closest. By attacking us and forcing us into slavery, Par'oh actually united us. It was for this reason that Bnei Yisrael were so strong. Par'oh recognized this strength, and therefore the Torah uses the language of "it," expressing his feelings about Bnei Yisrael.
When we go through very painful experiences and survive, we oftentimes become even more unified. Par'oh was reluctant to admit that we were strong both physically and spiritually, and those aspects are what he feared most. We learn a tremendous message from this Parashah. We have to unite in order to maintain and gain strength as a nation. If we are successful, we will be a force to be reckoned with, even to the most powerful nations of the world.