The first section of the Book of Exodus opens by listing the names (Shemot, in Hebrew) of Jacob's sons, and then chronicles the growth of their descendants into a nation and their enslavement in Egypt. As the conditions of slavery progressively worsen, the Jews cry out to G-d. G-d then charges Moses with the mission of freeing the Jewish people from slavery in order to receive the Torah. G-d informs them that the purpose of their redemption is so they can assume their role as the moral leaders of humanity, steering the world toward its Divine fulfillment as G-d's true home.
In the Book of Exodus, we see the seeds planted by the forefathers sprout: their descendants are transformed into a nation, receive their code of life - the Torah, and prepare to fulfill their mission in life by building the Tabernacle, G-d's "home" on earth.
Thus, the Hebrew name of the Book of Exodus is Shemot, meaning "Names," for through the events chronicled in this book, the Jewish nation and each individual Jew receive their "name," their essential national and personal identities as Jews.
The key to this process is exile. Exile calls forth the individual's hidden potential, his drive to survive despite the odds against him. In exile, a person cannot take life for granted; he must constantly decide whether to succumb or to overcome. The essential point of self-determination that lies dormant during periods of prosperity and freedom is bared and tested during exile. This is why King Solomon called the Egyptian exile "the iron furnace": it burned away the dross covering the innate Jewish soul.
The Egyptian exile was both physical and spiritual. In fact, as we shall see, the spiritual exile preceded and precipitated the physical exile, since every physical phenomenon is just an expression of its spiritual antecedent. The Jews' physical exile entailed loss of autonomy and backbreaking bondage; their spiritual exile was enslavement to the host culture, which led to the loss of Divine consciousness and the loss of their awareness of G-d's involvement in life. As we witness the descent of Jacob's family into progressively more severe physical exile, we can read between the lines and discern their descent into greater and deeper spiritual exile.
As the spiritual and physical exiles both intensified, the Jews were forced to confront their identity. Many of them succumbed to assimilation and were lost, but others struggled to retain their Jewish identity: they tenaciously held on to their traditions, refusing to give up even such incidental aspects of their heritage as their Jewish names and their Jewish language. The fact that they refused to give up even these external trappings of their cultural heritage indicated that they still nurtured their inner seed of faith in their destiny, even though they adopted certain aspects of the Egyptian mindset and lifestyle.
Once exile succeeded in revealing the inner essence of the Jewish people, they could proceed on to the next phase: the giving of the Torah. The exile was prerequisite to receiving the Torah because the purpose of the Torah is to teach us how to bring Divine consciousness into the most mundane aspects of reality, even those that appear to be antithetical to Divine consciousness. The Jewish people actualized their innate ability to do this, to overcome the forces opposing G-dliness, in exile. Once the people received the Torah, they could proceed to actualize its message in the world; this was the essence of the Tabernacle.
The overall lesson of the Book of Exodus, the book of "Names," then, is this: no matter how hard it may seem, we must not give up the struggle for Divine consciousness; the opposing forces are mighty but we have the power to overcome them. Self-sacrifice reveals the essence of our soul, and by revealing our soul and fulfilling its unique mission, we help usher in the redemption.
--Excerpt from Kehot's Chumash Synagogue Edition