Jacob heeds his mother’s warning and runs away from home. In his travels eastward he journeys through what will later be Jerusalem, and camps out on the site at which the Templewould eventually be built. In his dream he is promised by God that he will be next chain in the Jewish dynasty and that his descendants would return to Zion. Jacob reaches Mesopotamia and finds his family in the household of Laban. Jacob works for Laban and marries his two daughters and their two maidservants, and has eleven sons – eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Within the narrative told to us by the Torah this week, there lies an interesting phenomenon: the giving of names. Let us now examine this phenomenon:
- Jacob names the place he has the dream “Beit El – the House of the Lord” to signify his new realization of the holiness of the site.[i]
- All twelve of Jacob’s sons are given names. Each of them has a unique significance portraying the emotional/mental state of the one who chose the name at the time of birth.[ii]
- The site at which Jacob and Laban make a pact is given the name “Mound of Testimony – Gal’ed in Hebrew and Yegar Sahaduta in Aramaic”.[iii]
- In that same place the two named the cliff “Mitzpah – the lookout point,” symbolizing that God is keeping a watch between the two of them, making sure they keep the pact.[iv]
- Jacob encounters the “angels of God” as he starts his journey westward back to Israel, and names the place “Machanaim – the camp of God.”[v]
The simplest reading of the text indicates that these names were given for the very first time in this week’s Torah portion. Each one of Jacob’s sons were given a brand new name that had never been given before, and that new name was based on the emotion or thought dictated by the verse. For example, Jacob’s fourth son was named Judah, because Leah said, “This time I will give thanks – odeh – to God.”[vi] We are to assume that Leah invented this name based on the Hebrew word for “thanks,” and that Judah was the first one to be named such. Similarly, when Jacob innovates the name “Gal’ed,” it is assumed that this name is brand new, and is based on the narrative of the pact. The same should be true about all of the names in this week’s Torah portion – they are all brand new and were created on the spot to symbolize the circumstances in which they were given.
This assumption, however, leads itself to some difficulties. The problem is, that we have seen occurrences of these names earlier in Scripture, and it is therefore inaccurate to say that these names were given for the very first time in this week’s Torah portion. For example, Esau marries a woman named “Judith” years before “Judah” is born and named.[vii] The same is true about the name “Gal’ed”: the place is identified as “Gil’ad” several times before the story of the pact takes place.[viii]
Professor Yoel Elitzur of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem proposed a theory several years ago about Biblical names, and it behooves us to mention it here. Elitzur maintains that Biblical names of people and places were not created to fit the circumstance. Rather, the names had already existed, and the character in the story chose the name based on it being apt to the situation. Elitzur explains: “Our foremothers took the already existent names and matched them to the event through their descriptions and explanations.”[ix]
The name “Judah” had already existed in some form or another, and when Leah decided that she wanted her fourth child’s name to symbolize gratitude toward God, she chose that name which aptly described her emotions at the time of his birth.
Our Jewish ancestors used names that were not inherently Jewish or even monotheistic. This sheds light on the Jewish religion’s attitude towards the secular world. For too many years the Orthodox Jewish community has been extremely introverted and disconnected from secular knowledge. The truth is, the Jewish religion has never been one of isolation. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states beautifully in his message in stepping down from his position as Chief Rabbi of the UK:
The challenge of our time is to go out to Jews with a Judaism that relates to the world – their world – with intellectual integrity, ethical passion and spiritual power, a Judaism neither intimidated by the world nor dismissive of it, a Judaism fully expressive of the broad horizons and high ideals of our heritage.
We have much to teach the world – and the world has much to teach us. It is essential that we do so with generosity and humility. I have called Judaism the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.
The message is clear: We, as Jews, must not disconnect ourselves from the world around us and must utilize the knowledge that exists outside the realm of our own religion. Our very names symbolize this value – it is our very identity!
Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast. He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.
[i] Genesis 28:17-19.
[iv] 31:49; See Rashi to that verse.
[v] 32:3; See Rashi there for a different explanation of the word Machanaim.
[viii] See 31:21, 23, and 25. Only in 31:47-48 is the name actually given. See Rashi to 31:47 who identifies Gil’ad and Gal’ed as the same place.
[ix] Paraphrased and Translated from Elitzur’s book Makom B’Parsha