In our Torah portion this week, Toldot, we are introduced to the next generation of our Patriarchs. Isaac and Rebecca give birth to twin sons. The oldest is given the name Esau, meaning rough or thick; implying that he will be somewhat of a burly, primitive person. Jacob’s name stems from the Hebrew word ekev, meaning heal. When he was born, he was grasping his brother's foot, implying he was trying to hold his brother back so that he could be the first born. As is the case in this week’s Torah portion, and throughout the Bible, when someone is given a name, it is prescriptive, a form of prophecy foreshadowing who that individual will be and how they will behave. Both brothers spend the majority of our Torah portion fulfilling their destiny, as was pre-determined by the names they were given.
In that vein, the power to give someone a name is not to be taken lightly. However, having had the opportunity to do so, I personally view the names as much less prescriptive, and more aspirational. For example when I gave my children their names, I named them after my mother, hoping that some of her best qualities would be instilled and transferred into my children.
More important than the names we are given, are the names we make for ourselves. That is why after a period of growth and maturation, Jacob is able to change his name to Israel, meaning one who wrestles with God. We, the Jewish People, are often referred to as B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, as by definition, being Jewish, means at times we will struggle with our faith.
The Talmud teaches us that a good name is better than good oil, it is amongst the most valuable things we can have. Which is why my hope and prayer for all of us is that regardless of what our names may be, through our actions, and the way we interact with the world around us, we will get to determine what it is that they mean.
This spring, we will be conducting a workshop on Hebrew names, what they mean, and where they come from. It will provide the opportunity for those amongst us who may not have been given a Hebrew name to select one for themselves or their children. If you are interested, or if you have any questions, please do be in touch.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Josh Dorsch