Parshas Shemos begins the story of the Exodus and how Hashem saved the Jews from Egypt with great miracles and lessons culminating with their establishment as the Jewish Nation and receiving the Torah. Rashi (Shemos 1:1) states that the Torah lists off the names of the Jewish people in order to show Hashem’s love and endearment towards them. Even though they were counted earlier, never-the-less Hashem listed them off here again to show how precious they are to Him. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of the entire establishments of the Jewish nation as we shall explain.
Avos (1:14) states that Hillel used to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be?!, but when I am only for myself and not others, what am I worth?!, if not now, then when?” What does this mean and how does the last phrase about not procrastinating have to do with the first part of the statement about caring for oneself and others? The commentators explain that each one of the maxims endorsed by the rabbis in Pirkei Avos was an expression of his specific life mission and credo. Hillel was known for his love and patience when dealing with others (See Shabbos 31a). The Torah recognizes the personal needs of each individual. This is why we are taught (Bava Metzia 62a), “your life precedes that of others when you can only save one person.” Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 14:9) tell us that our soul has five names, Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah and Yechidah.” Each name represents a different and higher aspect of the soul. The last two represent the highest levels of human achievement. Chayah refers to the life vitality and eternity of the soul (ibid.) and Yechidah means “individualism” which refers to the greatest and deepest achievement of human growth. The peak of human achievement is to be in touch with oneself in a most deep and meaningful way; it represents the self-knowledge and self-mastery of a true great person. The study of Torah is intended to specifically bring out this recognition and accomplishment and not to negate individual creativity as many unfortunately think.
On the other hand, with such a strong focus on the self comes a danger that one will forget about his or her surroundings and fellow people. Thus, the Torah stresses the unity and power of Klal Yisrael as a nation. Throughout Shemos the Jews came together and were united until they were able to stand at Sinai “like one person with one unified heart (Mechilta Shemos).” That is how Torah is lived. This explains the statement of Hillel which focused on one’s foremost responsibility towards himself and then towards one’s fellow man. One may hear this dichotomy and be very confused. How can I focus on myself and others as well. Thus, Hillel concludes with a statement regarding the importance of time. One may think that I am not interested in helping others, why should I work to make them feel good and have their needs met. Hillel reminds us that life is limited and has a very specific purpose which is to grow in spirituality. Part of this is breaking the ego and learning to care about others. Hillel is encouraging us to find life and enjoyment in the pursuit of loving our neighbor and caring for his or her needs. Shemos is the story of the Jewish Nation but even more strongly it comes to stress the power of self-mastery and individual growth. Hashem counted each name by itself to show His interest in each individual’s growth. With this focus and commitment one is able to be a proud part of the Jewish Nation.