The power of names


By Eitan Gutin

This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43.

My wife and I were lucky when we were deciding on a name for our potential adopted child. We planned on adopting a boy and, as he was to be the first of his generation in each of our families, we were able to take our pick of who to name him after. Even before we began the formal adoption process we had settled on “Lev,” for my paternal grandfather, and “Yirmiyahu,” for my wife’s maternal grandfather. With no real pressure from family to choose a specific relative and with shared sensibilities the process was about as easy as it comes.

For thousands of years, Jews have recognized that there is power in names. It seems that no matter how many changes we have gone through as a people the recognition of this power has remained throughout. The story of Jacob, which continues in this week’s parsha, gives us an idea of how names were chosen in the ancient world and, even more important, how and why a given name would be changed.

In the Torah and in the first few books of the prophets, the names given to newborns are often a way of marking the moment of birth by remembering something related to that moment. Esav and Ya’akov are two great examples of this – Esav’s name is inspired by how hairy he was as a newborn, while Ya’akov’s is because he was grasping his twin brother’s heel on the way out of the womb.

Esav remains Esav for the rest of his life but Ya’akov, due to events at the beginning of this parsha, gets his name changed in a way that reflects his status as one of the Patriarchs of the Jewish people.

The night before Ya’akov is to see Esav for the first time since Ya’akov fled from home, we are told that “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 31:25). Ya’akov wrestles this man to a draw and, when asked to let the man go, requires a blessing as payment. The man grants Ya’akov a new name, Yisrael, which we translate as “one who has struggled with God.” To this day one of the names of the Jewish people is b’nai Yisrael, children of the one who struggled with God.

While the circumstances under which Ya’akov became Yisrael were unique, the idea of changing a name is one that has shown up in many eras of Jewish history.

In the Talmud, for example, changing one’s name is considered to be an effective form of repentance from a particularly egregious sin. In discussing how to avert an “evil decree” delivered on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yitzhak says that “Four things tear up the [evil] decree of a person. They are charity, crying out, changing one’s name, and changing one’s acts.” (Tractate Rosh Hashana 16b)

The Talmud also introduces one of the most powerful uses of a name change – giving one who is critically ill a new name in order to help the person heal. Names like Chayim (life) and Rafael (God heals) were often given to children and adults who were in need of healing. The reasons behind these name changes varied – one opinion was that God’s messengers of illness would have trouble finding a soul under a different name (taking advantage of Heaven’s bureaucracy) while other opinions were that changing someone’s name could itself be seen as a powerful form of prayer.

While the tradition of changing the name of one who is ill is not practiced as much today, it is not difficult to find Jews whose Hebrew names are not the given name of their ancestor but the name their ancestor was granted at a time of illness.

Our naming practices today often reflect the belief in the power of names from our people’s past. Sometimes we even avoid naming a child after someone whose life was more darkness than light so that our child can avoid inheriting any of that darkness. We often choose names that reflect qualities that we would like our children to have or the names of ancestors whose qualities we would like our child to inherit.

Given the story of Ya’akov becoming Yisrael, this is a good week to discuss as a household where your name and the names of other household members comes from. What do you know about your name? If you have children, what do they know about theirs? It is especially meaningful to children to hear the story about where their name came from, and what hopes and dreams their names represent.

Eitan Gutin is the director of Lifelong Learning at Tifereth Israel.

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