The Names By Which We Are Known

To be Jewish is to belong to the People of Israel, a nation whose roots are in the land called by the same name and who share a way of life based on common values and behaviors. Where did the name “Israel” come from? Its origins are in this week’s Torah portion, in the story of the patriarch Jacob who struggles with a mysterious Divine being at the banks of the river Yabok. Jacob is prevailing in the struggle and the Divine being asks to be let go as dawn is breaking. In exchange for being released, Jacob insists on being blessed, thus he receives this reward:

“Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:29)

Rashi (1040-1105, France) comments that Jacob’s name change is significant because it represents a meaningful change of character. He writes:

“It will no longer be said that the blessing came to you through guile [akva – similar to Yaakov] and deceit, but through prevailing and openly.”

In other words, the name Yaakov (Jacob) is somewhat of a label, reminding Jacob throughout his life, and perhaps others, that he began life through an act of deceit by pulling on his twin brother’s heel to prevent him from exiting the womb first. Rashi interprets that the struggle with the Divine being is a watershed moment; before it, Jacob is deficient in character, worthy of the dark shadow cast over his life by his name, but afterward he merits being called Israel.

But different from Abraham’s name change from Abram, or Sarah’s from Sarai, Jacob’s name change is not exclusive. Even after it is changed he is still sometimes called Jacob. Indeed, the two names are used interchangeably. To this day, we refer to him both by the name Jacob and by the name Israel.

That Jacob’s name change isn’t exclusive is addressed by the Midrash, where Bar Kappara says:

“It was taught: It was not intended that the name of Jacob should disappear, but that Israel should be his principal name and Jacob a secondary one. Rabbi Zechariah interpreted it in Rabbi Aha’s name: Jacob would be the principal name – Israel was added to it.” (Genesis Rabbah 78:3)

The sages disagree as to which name was primary and which was secondary, but they concur that the names Jacob and Israel were meant to be used interchangeably. But why? No reason is explicitly offered, but I would speculate that a change of name from Jacob to Israel is only symbolic of a change in character, and doesn’t represent a change of actual substance. Israel benefits from being reminded that he can easily slip back into being “Jacob.” His name change must be reinforced and supported with a change of behavior. While it’s not productive or healthy to be constantly reminded of wrong doing, it certainly can be helpful to be aware of our past shortcomings so we can measure ourselves against them.

We each carry symbolic names throughout our lives, names that reflect different aspects of our being and our personality. These names might represent times in our lives before we matured or grew into our better selves. Like Jacob, it’s healthy and productive to carry around these names, to remind ourselves of who we are and where we came from. Perhaps that was the spirit behind this poem written by the famous poetess Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky (Israeli poet who lived from 1914-1984 and was known simply as “Zelda”). As you read it, ask yourself what names you have been known by and what names you bear today.

Each of us has a name
given by God and given by our parents

Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name given by the sea
and given by our death.

I wish you a meaningful Thanksgiving celebration, and encourage you to offer these words of prayer, authored by Naomi Levy, as you gather with family and friends on Thursday.

A Prayer for the Thanksgiving Feast

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.




Giving Thanks

In the course of my rabbinate, I’ve had the privilege of participating with countless families in the celebration of the birth of a child. It’s always a delight to hear the name that parents choose for their child, and interesting to hear the reason for their choice. As many of us have done and in keeping with Ashkenazic tradition, parents often name a child after a loved one who has passed away (Sephardic custom is to name a child in honor of a living relative). But some parents give their child a name that represents an interest they may have in life (one parent named his son Harley because he liked motorcycles) or an experience they may have had at some point (another parent named their child Hudson because she and her husband fell in love and got married in New York).

In this week’s Parasha, we read about the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah. What’s striking about their choices is that they seem very self-serving, in an almost tragic sense. Leah chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.” Naftali is chosen because his mother won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and Joseph is chosen as an affirmation that “God has taken away my disgrace by adding another son to me.”

But the choice of the name Judah, the origin of the word Jewish, is made for reasons that are not self-serving. Leah chooses this name as an expression of gratitude for those things that are above and beyond what she felt she had a right to expect in life. When Leah gives birth to Judah—the namesake of our people—she says “ha-pa’am odeh et Adonai…this time I will thank God” (Genesis 29:35). Why did Leah feel the need to thank God when Judah was born? Because he was her fourth child, and she had reasoned that each of Jacob’s four wives would be entitled to bear three sons who would become one of the ancestors of the twelve tribes. Judah was “extra,” more than she felt she was entitled to have, so she felt compelled to offer thanks to God.

This idea lies at the heart of the historical narrative that gave rise to Thanksgiving. According to historical records, the Pilgrims suffered numerous fatalities during their first year in the New World. Of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower, only half survived. In order for the others to make it, they needed the help of the Wampanoag, who taught them how to hunt, how to fish and what crops to plant in a place that was unfamiliar to them. The Pilgrims, feeling indebted to the Wampanoag, asked that they join them for a meal to show their gratitude for their kindness. The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving gives us an insight into the meaning of gratitude. Related to the word “gratis,” showing gratitude seems to mean offering appreciation for those things that are free or extra, above and beyond what we feel we are entitled to have. The Pilgrims had no reason to expect that the Wampanoag would help them and the lifesaving assistance they received was above and beyond the basic sustenance for which they might have otherwise recited grace.

There is no exact equivalent Hebrew word for gratitude. Typically, people say “todah” when they wish to say thank you, a word emanating from the Hebrew verb “l’hodot,” meaning to acknowledge or to praise. Another phrase, often used in modern Hebrew to express gratitude, is “hakarat ha-tov, to recognize the good.” That phrase captures the true essence of giving thanks. To offer thanks is to recognize the good around us, and to express appreciation for that which we perceive to be extra or above what we are entitled to have. Each new day should be received as a gift. Judaism encourages us to not only express appreciation for the blessings we receive that go beyond what we think we ought to have in life, but also to express gratitude every moment of life itself, for it is all a gift.

On this Thanksgiving Day, and every day that follows, let us offer thanks for the totality of life.