What’s in a Name: Vayishlach Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

This is perhaps the most common question in commentaries on this section. Whether the commentary is entitled, “From Yaakov to Yisrael,” “Introspective Identity,” “The Name of Yisrael and Yeshurun,” “Your name is Israel,” “The Battle with Esav and the name Yisrael,” “Is It Yaakov or Yisrael,” “Yaakov and Yisrael: What’s in a Name?” “Yaakov Becomes Yisrael,” “Bolt of Inspiration 44 – Both names Are True,” “Yaakov’s Change of Name,” and on, and on, and on…, the question is discussed over and over again.

It is not as if there is a shortage of topics in this section. Some overlap, such as Jacob’s relationship to his brother, Esau. There is the tale of the rape of Dinah, which seems at first glance to have little if anything to do with naming and its meaning. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine. The Parashat is full of sex and betrayal. Yet, the story of Jacob wresting with the angel who blesses Jacob by changing his name is understandably a preoccupation.

However, there is another story about a change of name that ends the section. Rachel dies in childbirth and gives her son one name that is soon displaced when his father gives him another name. I will start there and then return to the story of Jacob’s name change.

But first a preamble. In Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene 2) set in Capulet’s orchard, on one of the most famous scenes in the Shakespearian repertoire, and one of the most romantic passages of all of literature, Romeo appears ruminating and talking to himself.

ROMEO:

He jests at scars that never felt a wound.


Enter Juliet above at a window.

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.
It is my lady; O, it is my love!
O that she knew she were!
She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold; ’tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

JULIET:

Ay me!

ROMEO:

She speaks.
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wond’ring eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.

JULIET:
            O Romeo, Romeo! Where art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name!
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

ROMEO:

Aside.

Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

JULIET:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

ROMEO:

I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

JULIET:

What man art thou that, thus bescreen’d in night,
So stumblest on my counsel?

ROMEO:

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am.
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee.
Had I it written, I would tear the word
.

 

The theme is simple and direct. Two lovers are separated because their families, the Capulets and the Montagues, are feuding. Each of the lovers would surrender their names for the sake of their love. They hate their names. Their names separate rather than unite them. Names are tribal. Names are divisive. Names are identified with conflict. For what’s in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

However, the human story in the Torah begins by giving things names. An apple is an apple. A banana is a banana. A rose is indeed a rose and would be something else by another name. Names have meanings. Names have significance. But not in the world of romantic love.

The story of Jacob in relationship to Rachel is one of the few stories of romance in the biblical text. After all, Jacob was smitten with Rachel and worked seven years to win her hand in marriage. And when tricked by Laban, Rachel’s father, who substituted his older and plain daughter in place of Rachel in the bridal bed, Jacob worked another seven years to finally gain her hand in marriage. Compared to such dedication and sacrifice, Romeo’s self-torment as Juliet stands on her balcony seems like infatuation rather than deep love, perhaps the same infatuation Jaccob and Rachel felt for one another when they first met.

But that is not how the love affair ends. Near the end of the Parashat, in chapter 35, verses 13-20 read as follows:

יג  וַיַּעַל מֵעָלָיו, אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ. 13 And God went up from him in the place where He spoke with him.
יד  וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ–מַצֶּבֶת אָבֶן; וַיַּסֵּךְ עָלֶיהָ נֶסֶךְ, וַיִּצֹק עָלֶיהָ שָׁמֶן. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink-offering thereon, and poured oil thereon.
טו  וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶת-שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ שָׁם אֱלֹהִים–בֵּית-אֵל. 15 And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Beth-el.
טז  וַיִּסְעוּ מִבֵּית אֵל, וַיְהִי-עוֹד כִּבְרַת-הָאָרֶץ לָבוֹא אֶפְרָתָה; וַתֵּלֶד רָחֵל, וַתְּקַשׁ בְּלִדְתָּהּ. 16 And they journeyed from Beth-el; and there was still some way to come to Ephrath; and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.
יז  וַיְהִי בְהַקְשֹׁתָהּ, בְּלִדְתָּהּ; וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמְיַלֶּדֶת אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-גַם-זֶה לָךְ בֵּן. 17 And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the mid-wife said unto her: ‘Fear not; for this also is a son for thee.’
יח  וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ, כִּי מֵתָה, וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, בֶּן-אוֹנִי; וְאָבִיו, קָרָא-לוֹ בִנְיָמִין. 18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing–for she died–that she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.
יט  וַתָּמָת, רָחֵל; וַתִּקָּבֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה, הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם. 19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath–the same is Beth-lehem.
כ  וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה, עַל-קְבֻרָתָהּ–הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת-רָחֵל, עַד-הַיּוֹם. 20 And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; the same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.

Jacob set up a pillar to commemorate where he spoke with God which he named, Beth-el, “House of God.” He also set up a pillar upon Rachel’s grave known, not just until the time when the Torah was written, but until the present as Rachel’s Tomb. Between those two bookends, Rachel gave birth to her second son whom she named Ben-oni, son of my pain, son of my suffering, before she died in childbirth. Jacob, after the love of his life died, renamed the boy, Binyomin (בנימים), Benjamin, perhaps son of my right hand. This does not seem very respectful to the love of his life, usurping the name she gave their son with his own.

One explanation is that Jacob did not want his youngest son, who became his favourite, to live under the shadow of possible guilt that his being born was responsible for his mother’s death. His father wanted to give him a positive message, a very positive one, by designating Benjamin as his favourite son, son of his right hand. Or it could have been, not about favouritism, but about a son whom he wanted to carry forth with his strength of his right hand. Or perhaps a third meaning; he wanted Benjamin to be straight and not deceitful, a characteristic associated with left-handedness; he did not want his son to be sinister. In any of these interpretations, the renaming was a romantic gesture, not one of disrespect or supplanting, but of heightening the prospects for his youngest son.

But Benjamin has another meaning, son of my old age. In this sense, there is a rivalry between his son remembering his mother’s pain or, alternatively, remembering that he, his father lived long enough so that he, Benjamin could be born. Do you want a name associated with your mother’s death and pain or with your father’s perseverance and determination unto old age?

But Rachel’s death on giving birth is not simply a matter of pain, but of greater perseverance, of seeing the birth through in spite of the pain she experienced. In this, there is an implied remonstration to Jacob – he remained someone who never knew himself and wanted to hide himself and, therefore, as a projection, also wanted to hide and bury the memory of the pain that Rachel went through. For the stories tend to focus on what Jacob sacrificed to win the hand of Rachel.

But what about Rachel? She was beautiful. She could have had the pick of anyone. But she not only waited 14 years, but was willing to share the marriage bed with her older sister. That is real sacrifice! Rachel knew that Jacob was by nature a dissembler and supplanter, not only of his brother Esau, but even of his wife whom he sincerely loved. Perhaps he even knew that the name she gave her son would be replaced, but at least her youngest son would know that it had been replaced. It was her gift to the truth of her existence and the truth of his birth rather than fake news built on fantasies that perhaps characterized his father. For his father, though extremely hard working, was not only timid, not only a mother’s boy, but a dissembler, even when his brother wanted to forgive and forget for love of his younger twin.

In the future, the tribe of Benjamin almost became extinct in the period of the civil war at the time of the rule of the judges and, in the war between the northern and the southern tribes, the remnant of the tribe of Benjamin was absorbed by the tribe of Judah. The name of Benjamin as a distinct line in history was eventually extinguished. As his mother suffered in pain and died, so would his progeny.

Whatever the name, whatever the meaning of the name, it cannot simply be tossed away on the ash heap of history as both Romeo and Juliet were willing to do for the sake of love. For the sake of real rather than romantic love, we want our children to remember us and to know what we want, what we expect of them, what we hope for them.

But what about Jacob being renamed Israel?

 

To be continued

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

That is an interpretation for another day. Sudfice to say, Israel survived. Israel lives on until this day even though eleven of the twelve tribes disappeared in history. For Jacob earned his knew name when he not only prevailed over man but over the divine.

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