By Rabbi Marc Israel
The Torah and rabbinic commentators place great import into the meaning of a name.
We learn of the power of naming from Adam, who is charged by God to name all of the animals. According to the Ramban, as each animal passed before him, Adam would discern that animal’s distinctive nature and grant it a name accordingly.
Later, when God wants to mark Avram and Sarai for their devotion, God adds the letter “hey” — a symbol of God’s own name — to their names, now calling them Avraham and Sarah. Many centuries later, the rabbis in Pirkei Avot note that there are three crowns in the world, but the keter shem tov — the crown of a good name — is greater than all of them.
In this week’s parshat, Yayishlach, we also have a change in names. Not once, but twice, Ya’akov is given a new name, Yisrael. We read about the change initially at the beginning of the portion, after a long night in which Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being. When the sun rises and this mysterious being indicates Jacob has won and should release him, Jacob demands a blessing.
The being then tells Jacob that he will not be called Jacob any more, but will be known as Yisrael, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim batuchal (for you have wrestled with God and with people and have prevailed).
Later in the parshah, it is repeated, but this time it is God who bestows the name, saying “You whose name is Ya’akov, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Yisrael shall be your name. Thus God named him Yisrael.”
There are (at least) two unusual aspects of this story. First, why does God need to change his name if it was done previously and second, why does the Torah continue to refer to Yisrael sometimes as Ya’akov after this point. After all, Maimonides teaches us that anyone who calls Avraham by the name Avram after his name was changed would be transgressing a commandment. Why doesn’t the same thing hold true for Yisrael/Ya’akov?
On the first question, Rashi explains that God needed to repeat the granting of the name because it was God’s prerogative to give Ya’akov the name change and the blessing. The first time the name was changed, it appears that it is only because Ya’akov is demanding the change and, therefore, one might think it was given under duress. God repeats the name change to make it clear that God is the one granting the new name to Ya’akov because God wants to give him this blessing, not because Ya’akov demanded it.
On the second issue, regarding why Ya’akov is sometimes called Ya’akov and sometimes called Yisrael, the commentator Or Hachayim explains that when God grants a new name, it is to indicate a change in the person’s soul, in the person’s very essence. When this happens, the person’s old essence is not uprooted altogether, but rather, something is added onto it.
Therefore, he explains, that there are times when we see the character acting as Ya’akov and there are times when we see him acting as Yisrael and the Torah indicates this through the name by which he is called at each moment. Or Hachayim explains that this was also true of Avraham, but in that case, because his former name (Avram) was already included in his new name, there was no need to go back.
I believe this commentary offers us an important insight about how people change. When a person makes a decision to make a life change, the “original” person still lies within, no matter how dramatic the change may appear to others.
I recently attended a training session sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Service that helped me gain a better understanding of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole and the transgender community in particular.
When someone goes through a gender transition, some people may think that the individual becomes a whole new person. In reality, we learned, many people who go through this process feel that they are now outwardly expressing the real person they always have been on the inside. The name, gender and pronouns one uses are different and now reflect more accurately how that person has always felt on the inside.
Change is always difficult and changes in societal norms all the more so. But using the preferred name and gender pronouns to refer to someone is a basic level of respect. Dale Carnegie once said that “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Just as Adam was able to discern the animals’ inner essence in naming them, we must listen to the inner voices of people within our community and call them by their name of choice.
Shakespeare may believe that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I prefer the words from I Samuel 25:25, kishmo, ken hu: One’s name describes one’s essence.
Rabbi Marc Israel is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.