Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 9, 2022 / 15 Kislev 5783
Summary: This week’s Oasis focuses on the importance of names, identity, and antisemitism.
Reading Time: Four minutes
There’s a Jewish belief that changing a name can change someone’s fortune, as though that name change represents a break from the past or from a difficult destiny. The origins of this belief are scattered throughout the Bible. There are the more famous examples of these name changes: Avram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; according to tradition, the Hebrew letter “hey” that is added on indicates their deeper connection to God. There are also lesser-known characters who are renamed: Azariah becomes Abednego in the book of Daniel, while Gideon gains the name Jerub-Baal in the book of Judges. Joseph, the dreamer, is given a name by Pharaoh of “Tzofnat Paneach”—the explainer of hidden things. There are dozens of such examples in our sacred literature, highlighting what in effect is a Biblical motif. Life changes us, so a new name is a way of marking that history or inviting us to head in a new direction.
Contained in this motif is an implicit commentary on the nature versus nurture discussion. How much freedom do we have to reinvent ourselves, and how much of our nature is settled from birth or formed in our earliest years and is therefore resistant to significant change?
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob returns home years after fleeing for his life because of his trickery in bilking his brother out of Esau’s birthright. In preparation for this reunion, Jacob sends ahead many gifts to Esau—550 animals. On the night before their reunion, Jacob encounters a mysterious man or angel with whom he wrestles, and from whom he is given a new name, Yisrael. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).
Yet how novel is this new name? The etymology of the name Jacob comes from ekev, heel. Even in the womb, Jacob has been wrestling, grabbing the heel of his brother, supposedly in an attempt to overcome and supplant him. Jacob the trickster, Jacob who struggles for advantage, Jacob who is never passive when his own interests are concerned—his name may have changed, but the meaning of his name remains intact. His nature seems unaffected by his name change.
If we look more closely at the brothers’ reunification, we can see something else that is startling. Despite the 550 animals that he gives to Esau, and despite the tears they shed when they first meet, Jacob never apologizes for his past actions. These animals are not a reparation for his past theft of the birthright but an attempt to appease Esau and to calm his own fear. Jacob, who is now Israel, remains Jacob the trickster. Nor is this limitation on the power of names to change us restricted to Jacob’s story. Abraham and Sarah were already close to God before their names were changed and had left the life they knew because of that relationship. We already know that Joseph understands the meanings of dreams that elude the rest of us. Nothing fundamental has shifted for them. Even as the Bible continually outlines the power of names, it also reminds us that it’s hard to change our nature. Some things are fundamental to our identities.
As Hanukkah approaches and antisemitism increases, the significance of names takes on an additional historical dimension. Joseph and Azariah both gain secular names that help them fit into their new cultural milieu. Unless your last name is Cohen or Levi, chances are that somewhere in your family history, some ancestors changed your name to sound less Jewish, or were forced to change their names. My family name of Kosak was supposedly “purchased” from Polish gentiles so that we could engage in types of business from which Jews were otherwise barred. That is an American story as well, for countless Jews changed their last names when they arrived on these shores to protect themselves from antisemitism and better blend into America. Those changed names often were accompanied with a change in nature as Jews relinquished their Jewish identities to avoid the oppression and hatred with which we are too familiar. Yet Hanukkah is a reminder of that tension between our desire to assimilate and fit in, and the simultaneous need to resist those who would erase our cultural and religious identity.
With the return of antisemitism, we are once again being asked to wrestle with who we are and therefore what our name is. Despite the desire to fit in, the Hanukkah menorah (chanukiah) is a reminder that our Jewish identity is fundamental to who we are; it is not something that a simple name change can alter. At the same time, the lights of Hanukkah and the miracle of the oil give us hope and courage that preserving our names and identities is also a profound way to change our fortune by joyfully embracing the full authenticity of who we are.
Shabbat Table Talk
- Have you ever considered what connections there are between your Hebrew and secular names?
- When you were a child, did you like the name your parents gave you, or did you wish you had a different name?
- Is your professional name different than your legal name? Why?
- Do you have a favored or preferred nickname? What is it that appeals to you in that name?
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