Summarized by Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon
"And these are the NAMES of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt... Reuven, Shimon..." (Shemot 1:1).
The Torah has already provided us - in Parashat Vayigash - with the list of names of Benei Yisrael who came down to Egypt. For what reason, then, does the Torah repeat the same list again in this week's parasha?
Rashi explains that "although they were enumerated by name during their lifetimes, God enumerates them once again after their death in order to demonstrate His love for them. (In this respect) they are compared to the stars, which God takes out and brings in by number and by name, as it is written: "He takes out their host by number, calling each by its name."
The Midrash Rabba (Shemot 1:3) elaborates further:
"... Israel are compared to the heavenly host; here their names are mentioned, and the stars, too, are enumerated by name... and God Himself counted Benei Yisrael when they went down to Egypt, to see how many there were. And since they are compared to the stars, He counted each by name. Hence it is written, 'These are the names of the children of Israel...'".
Rashi and the midrash mention two concepts: number and names. "Number" refers to the commonness, the similitude, each unit identical to all the others. "Names" refers to the special quality of each one, his individuality.
Am Yisrael are compared to stars: each star is a world in itself, each one is different from the others. So it is with Israel - each person has qualities unique to him, each has his own name.
Today there is a tendency towards mass production, and little value is attached to individual craftsmanship. Companies produce thousands of items each day, all completely identical to each other. The tendency in society, too, is to be fashionably 'in,' to be like everyone else. In yeshiva, each person wants to learn like everyone else. One of the gedolim once said that R. Yisrael Salanter was remarkable in that his talmidim all turned out different from one another - all were great, but each in his own way.
In the past, one could talk about the customs of the different tzaddikim. Today, there is almost no such thing as a certain tzaddik having an individual custom, because as soon as that tzaddik behaves in a certain way, everyone immediately imitates him.
A person must find what is unique about himself, and not just imitate others. Obviously, in the early stages of one's development, one has to take on and assimilate the common foundations and standards. But thereafter, each person should develop along his own individual path.
The Vilna Gaon taught that Benei Yisrael had many prophets - twice as many as the number of those who came out of Egypt. Benei Yisrael would go to the prophets, and the prophets would tell them what was special about each and every one of them and how each should serve God accordingly. There is no set way that is appropriate for everyone - each person has his own way of serving God.
The two aspects - number and name - have to be combined. On one hand, a person has to feel like a "number" - he has to feel that he is part of society. "If I am for myself, what am I?" On the other hand, he must not become identical to everyone else. Everyone has something special about him, each person has a name - "These are the names of the children of Israel."
Translated by Kaeren Fish.)