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Vayetzei(Genesis 28:10-32:3)

What's In a Name?

A tradition that traces back to the Ari, the great Kabbalist and medieval sage, presents a startling theory about people's names. We are accustomed to think that a name is merely an arbitrary tag that we attach to a person for the purpose of identification. Every person could theoretically bear any name as there is no inherent connection between an individual and his or her label. But the Ari taught that Jewish parents are imbued with Ruach Hakodesh, a spark of the "Holy Spirit," when they name their children. The name they select is invariably the true description of the neshama, or spiritual essence of their child.

The Talmud expresses this same concept in terms of character (Yuma, 83b); a Jew's name accurately reflects his or her essential character. The clear implication; when parents name their child, they are given a prophetic glimpse of their child's neshama, or "spiritual essence".

 

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ROMANTIC RIVALRY

This week's Torah portion describes the births of the twelve sons of Jacob who eventually evolve into the twelve tribes of Israel in great detail, and devotes a lot of space to explaining the origin of their names. Even the most superficial perusal of Genesis, Chs. 29 and 30, leads to some striking observations; the tribes were all named by their respective mothers; their father Jacob seems to have played no role whatever in the selection of their names.

The common principle employed by the matriarchs in the selection process is also strikingly obvious. All the names selected describe the status of the romantic relationship between Jacob and the naming mother. The story of the selection of names incidentally reveals that Jacob's wives were engaged in ceaseless rivalry over their husband's affections. They were so obsessed with winning the battle for the dominant spot in his romantic consciousness, that even the children they bore were valued primarily as means of advancement in this bizarre contest.

How can names selected on the basis of such criteria manage to reflect the spiritual essence of the tribes? How can we relate to the rivalry and jealousy between wives in a household that is supposed to be the source of all that is holy in the Jewish people?

 

* * *

 

IT REALLY WORKS

Let us begin our discussion by demonstrating the fact that this bizarre method of choosing the names of the tribes actually did succeed in producing names that accurately described the character of each tribe just as the Ari maintained. In other words, selecting names that described the state of romantic attachment between husband and wife had the accuracy we commonly attribute only to prophetic knowledge of predicting the characters of the children born of the attachment!

For example, Leah named her third son Levi, meaning, "attached to," as the Torah tells us:

"Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, 'This time my husband will become attached to me for I have born him three sons.' Therefore He called his name Levi." (Genesis 29:34)

This child turned out to be the progenitor of the tribe that attaches Israel to God; Levi's descendants consisted of the priestly class, the Kohanim, who officiated at the sacrifices in the Temple, and the Levites who accompanied these sacrifices with song and were in charge of the general maintenance of all holy property. The Sages inform us that God Himself consented to this name, as it says, "He called his name Levi," - the "He" in the verse refers to God, not to Jacob. Leah named him Levi and God enthusiastically endorsed her choice.

Thus Leah was correct when she perceived that if the child she bore strengthened the romantic bond between Jacob and herself through the very fact of his birth, this was not the incidental by-product of any child's birth but stemmed from the spiritual power inherent in the character of the child. It was not because he was born third that Levi had this effect but the opposite. It was because Levi was a person who could bring people closer that he was born third.

 

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PRAISE AND GRATITUDE

Subsequently, Leah hit the mark perfectly once again, naming her fourth son Judah, a derivation of the Hebrew word Hoda'ah, meaning "praise." The Torah relates:

"She conceived again, and bore a son and declared, 'This time let me gratefully praise God.' Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she stopped giving birth." (Genesis 29:35)

Our Sages explain the thinking behind the selection of this name (see Rashi). Leah was a prophetess, as indeed all the matriarchs were, and she knew that Jacob would have twelve sons from four wives; her fourth son was therefore more than her distributive share of three and called for special gratitude. This son, Judah, became the progenitor of Jewish royalty. Of the first two Jewish kings descended from Judah, King David authored the Psalms, the hymn-book universally adopted by mankind as the book of praise and thanksgiving to God; while David's son, Solomon, authored the Song of Songs, the supreme expression of the love that binds God and Israel, regarded by many as the most sublime outpouring of Divine praise ever written.

The selection of the name Judah demonstrates that this link between Jewish royalty and the display of extraordinary ability in singing God's praises is not coincidental. The Jewish king symbolizes the concentrated essence of his nation, and therefore serves as the earthly focus of the connection between Israel and the ultimate king, God. God is described as "the Holy One, enthroned upon the praises of Israel" (Psalms 22:4). The mortal Jewish king symbolizes the human personification of Israel's praise of God.

 

* * *

 

HOW IT WORKS

Now that we see that it works, can we offer an explanation of how it works? In the Jewish view of the world, the connection between husband and wife is primarily spiritual. We understand this from the creation of the very first human being:

"So God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27)

The very first human being is described as both male and female; only the human couple presents the complete image of God that He called adam, or "man." The husband and wife who are united in a Jewish marriage constitute two halves of a single spiritual entity; it is only together that they constitute a tzelem Elohim, a living image of God. Their marriage does not create the bond that cements them to each other; it merely reassembles the unique manifestation of the Divine image that the combination of their particular souls represents. It is little wonder that the souls of children born into such marriages are heavily influenced by the intensity of the spiritual bond that exists between their parents.

 

* * *

 

DOUBLING IT

But if this is true, how is it possible for a person to have more than one wife? How do we explain the existence of more than one soul mate? Let us study Jacob's marriage again in light of what the Sages teach us about his wives:

"Laban had two daughters. The name of the older one was Leah and the name of the younger one was Rachel. Leah's eyes were tender, while Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance." (Genesis 29:16)

Rashi explains: "Leah's eyes were tender because she wept constantly in prayer that she be allowed out of the fate of marrying Esau. People used to say that as Rebecca had two sons and Laban two daughters, the elder daughter (Leah) would be married to the elder son (Esau), while the younger daughter (Rachel) was destined to marry the younger son (Jacob)."

Jacob was a singularly holy person and he therefore "fell in love" with Rachel at first sight; he instantly perceived the spiritual bond between them and recognized her as his other half (Genesis 29:18). He was interested in Rachel, and totally indifferent to Leah, just as we would expect.

However, in the course of time Jacob metamorphosed into a complex person with an added spiritual dimension. Following Jacob's victory in the battle with the angel (Ibid., 32:25), who is identified by our sages as the spiritual power of Esau (see Rashi), the angel informs Jacob:

"No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome." (Ibid., 32:29)

In line with the concept of the Ari with which we started this essay, the new name, Israel, must represent a spiritual aspect that Jacob somehow managed to acquire subsequent to his birth. Thus, in terms of his spiritual content, Jacob must really be seen as two people wrapped into a single individual - Jacob and Israel. As each soul is cast in God's image, which means that it is both male and female as established above, each of Jacob's two names must have its corresponding female aspect. It follows that Jacob must have two different female halves, Rachel who is bonded with his Jacob aspect, and Leah, who is the spiritual counterpart of Jacob's Israel facet.

 

* * *

 

TRACING THE ORIGINS

Upon reflection, the discovery that Jacob has a dual spiritual aspect should come as no surprise. The development of such duality is the inevitable outcome of appropriating the blessings that would have gone to Esau in the ordinary course of events. When Jacob assumed the leadership role that is normally the province of the first-born, (see last week's essay on Toldos) Esau was faced with a difficult choice. He could accept the role reversal and occupy the place in the future nation of Israel formerly assigned to Jacob, or he could reject the new situation and opt out of membership in Israel. Esau chose to opt out, but this decision of Esau's created a serious spiritual problem. Esau had been endowed with approximately half the spiritual potential of the future Jewish people. The void caused by the loss of the spiritual potential that he represented had to be filled.

Jacob, as the person responsible for having driven Esau out, was forced to acquire an extra spiritual dimension to compensate for the spiritual power that the people of Israel stood to forfeit with Esau's departure. It was following his victory over the angel of Esau who symbolized this lost spiritual power that Jacob was given the name Israel.

 

* * *

 

DIVISION OF POWERS

The spiritual division of roles involved in the process of child bearing between Jewish parents takes the following form: the spiritual potential of the Jewish child is brought down from heaven by the father, but it is the mother who possesses the ability to express this new spiritual dimension in the physical world packaged in a living human child born from her body. The Hebrew word zachor, meaning "male," has the same numerical value as the Hebrew word bracha, meaning "blessing." The Talmud teaches:

A husband must always be careful about his wife's honor, because blessing is found in a person's house only on account of his wife. (Bava Metzia 59a)

The male may be the source of blessing, but it is through the female that the blessing fills the Jewish home.

Each unique expression of God's image has its own unique female aspect by definition; the repository of the capacity to bring that particular image of God down to earth. Says the Talmud:

Forty days prior to the formation of a child an announcement is made in heaven; X's daughter is designated for Y. (Sota 2a)

 

* * *

 

ISRAEL'S COUNTERPART

Jacob had a female counterpart, Rachel, whom God created expressly to express the spiritual potential inherent in the name Jacob, but Rachel was not designed to give expression to the image of God inherent in the name Israel. As the spiritual makeup of Israel was equal to the spiritual power lost to the Jewish people through the apostasy of Esau, the female to give this power its proper expression was Leah, who was intended to be Esau's wife.

But the combination of spiritual potentials within a single individual had a curious side effect. While in the state of separation Jacob was obviously the more spiritual brother, after the potential of Esau was added to his own, the situation became reversed. The Jewish people are referred to as Jacob when they are in a lowered spiritual state. Whenever they surpass themselves and reach a spiritual pinnacle they are called Israel. Israel is Jacob plus Esau, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It was Leah, the female counterpart of Israel, who gave birth to the progenitors of Jewish royalty (Judah), priesthood (Levi), and scholarship (Issachar).

 

* * *

 

FINALIZING THE TRANSFER

Although these children of Israel were born earlier, in our Torah portion, Jacob was only confirmed at the spiritual heights encapsulated in the name Israel when he successfully fought Esau's angel to a standstill and forced him to voluntarily surrender the blessings. The completion of the process of growth is marked by the official bestowing of the name Israel as explained by the Ari. The acquisition of the blessings only became final when Jacob demonstrated that they rightfully belonged to him through merit and were not accidentally in his possession due to artifice and trickery. Jacob demonstrated this merit by winning the battle with the angel.

But this battle did not take place until Rachel, who at first appeared barren, finally gave birth to a son, Joseph. It was only then that Jacob was ready to leave the house of his father-in-law, Laban, and face confrontation with Esau. It was not until then that he could fully actualize himself spiritually as Israel. It is no wonder that Jacob was afraid of the confrontation with Esau.

"Rescue me please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him lest he come and strike me down, mother and children. (Ibid., 32:12)

Until he was officially confirmed as Israel, the children of Leah, who had been born as the earthly expression of this spiritual level were at risk.

It is obvious that the ascent to the spiritual level named Israel had to proceed through the expansion of the level called Jacob. It was Rachel, Jacob's female counterpart, who possessed the ability to give this spiritual level its earthly expression. Things can only grow if they are first expressed. If Rachel had remained childless there would have been no earthly expression of the spiritual Jacob, and Jacob could never have proceeded to become Israel. Until Rachel gave birth to Joseph the confrontation with Esau's angel and the ability to be confirmed as Israel were both out of the question. The final spiritual form the Jewish people would adopt still hung in the balance.

 

* * *

 

UNTANGLING THE KNOTS

Leah's children were the earthly expression of the higher spiritual level Israel. But Leah's dependency on Rachel is clear throughout. Jacob had no intention of marrying Leah; it was Rachel who was his innate female counterpart and it was she that he wanted. In fact, it was Rachel who authored the deception that made Leah's marriage to Jacob possible. Jacob had devised secret signals between himself and Rachel precisely to prevent such an outcome, but Rachel taught them to Leah in order to spare her sister the humiliation of exposure (see Rashi Ibid., 29:25)

The transformation of Jacob to Israel was achieved through deception on both the male and the female axes. First Jacob deceived Isaac to obtain the blessings that would have gone to Esau. Then Rachel deceived Jacob and tricked him into marrying Leah, Esau's spiritual female counterpart. For this reason, Rachel is called everyone's mother. In a very real sense, it was only through her that Leah's children and the spiritual power they represented received their earthly expression. She was the one who arranged the marriage between Jacob and Leah.

The matriarchs, being prophetesses, had an accurate sense of the spiritual power they were meant to bring into the world. Each wanted to serve God by bringing down to earth the images of God that could only be drawn as the expression of the spiritual force that they each represented. They weren't trying to outdo each other. Leah's children could not have come from Rachel or vice versa. They weren't even seeking the same spiritual bond with their husband. Rachel was looking for Jacob, while Leah was looking for Israel - each seeking to complete a different aspect of God's image on earth.

Together Rachel and Leah illustrate the power of the Jewish woman to bring spirituality to the physical world.

There are two types of creativity. One sort of genius comes up with a creative idea, but it takes another sort of genius to give that abstract idea its concrete expression. There is an immense distance between Einstein's discovery that E=mc2 and the ability to construct nuclear reactors to generate electricity and exploit the idea.

It is through the genius of the Jewish woman that the inspiration of Judaism impacts on the real world.

Published: January 19, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Anonymous, November 24, 2009 5:59 PM

Two women married to two men in one body

The concept of Jacob marrying both women because of his two spiritual attributes connected to the names Israel and Jacob was completely new to me, as well as the idea of Leah marrying the Essau spiritual energy of Jacob--wow! I've never heard this intepretation before...and how Jacob had to earn this spiritual side of Essau by winning the struggle with Essau's energy in the form of the angel to earn his becoming more than only Jacob, but Jacob and Essau to equal the greater strength, or the sum of its parts. What a lesson! This provokes a whole slew of new thought and questions for me...

(6) Kathy Thomas, August 4, 2009 9:26 PM

Informative and enlightning Thank you.

(5) M. Thomas, March 26, 2008 12:27 AM

well done

Your insight into the account and the clarity with which you expressed it are astounding. I made up my mind to subscribe long before I was even finished reading.

(4) Tamunokuro, November 14, 2007 7:42 AM

It is a practical truth

the importance of names as given by parents cannot be overstated. it is indeed a real truth. More of this that can thrust into real life meditation.

(3) Anonymous, November 12, 2007 12:40 PM

How can we study the rest of the tribes names?

Wow, i have never heard this before. It is fascinating. How can i study this some more?

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