The words we use – even our names – possess vast power


Parashat Vayishlakh


One of the things I love about the Torah is the humanity of the people portrayed in it. We see believable emotions, ones that we recognize in ourselves, despite the age of the narrative.  For these last few parashiyot (Torah portions) we are witnessing the annals of Jacob’s life and his personal evolution. 

Shakespeare said in “Romeo and Juliet”: “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” No doubt there is a deep truth in this expression, yet the Torah and our tradition in general has another, and very different, perspective on names. In the Torah, a name captures the essence of something or someone. It encapsulates the person. 

At the age of 16, having just graduated high school, I spent five weeks in Israel. I remember having a discussion with a stranger in the back of a sherut (a taxi that travels from city to city) about whether people live up to their names – do their names influence how they view themselves and, therefore, how they will live their lives?

Jacob’s Hebrew name, Ya’akov, is used to explain things about him throughout the text. When he is born, we read that he was named Ya’akov because he was holding on to the “heel” (akev) of Esau (the name Ya’akov and akev share the same three-letter root of ayin, kuf, bet/vet). Later, in Genesis 27:36, after Jacob has gotten Esau’s birthright and also stolen his blessing, Esau connects the root of his brother’s name to a different word, one that means “to deceive” or “supplant.” (It may seem odd that two such different meanings - “heel” and “deceive/supplant” -could stem from the same root, but there are actually two “ayins” in Hebrew, evolving from two “proto-Semitic” letters, both of which became “ayin” in Hebrew).

In Vayishlakh, we read about Jacob’s experience the night before he will meet Esau again after a 20-year separation. Jacob spends that night alone, clearly anxious about the encounter.  He had fled his brother’s presence 20 years earlier, fearing for his life after tricking their blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau. 

Jacob, however, is no longer the same person who ran away two decades before. He is ready to face his brother and return to the land of his birth. 

During the night, he has an encounter with a “man” and they wrestle until dawn. The “man” cannot defeat Jacob and, as dawn is about to break, Jacob refuses to let him go until the “man” gives him his blessing.   

There are a number of unclear elements in this short passage. When Jacob asks the “man” (who is called an “angel,” malakh, in Hosea 12:5) to bless him before he will release him, the “man” asks Jacob what his name is and says that he will no longer be called Ya’akov, but rather Yisra’el (Israel) because “he has wrestled with God and with humans and has prevailed.” 

Then Jacob asks the being his name.  He replies by saying, “Why do you ask my name?” This question is immediately followed by the words “and he blessed him there.” The text is ambiguous. Is the blessing the change of name or does the blessing occur afterward, without being spelled out for us in the text? Also, interestingly, though Jacob’s name has just been changed to Yisra’el, the Torah reverts to referring to him as Jacob immediately afterward. 

In the Torah, the change of a name reflects an inner change in a person. Jacob has grown enormously in the 20 years since he fled from his brother. In fact, immediately after being blessed by this stranger, Jacob names the place in which the encounter occurred P’ni’el because he has encountered the Divine panim el panim (usually translated as “face to face,” but I prefer to translate it “depth to depth” – the root can also mean “depth”) and has survived. 

Though Shakespeare wrote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” he clearly knew the potency of language and used it with enormous precision and art. The words we use and how we use them possess vast power. 

In the Torah, creation comes about through divine speech.  When Maimonides (following Aristotle) categorizes four levels of existing things (inanimate, vegetative, animal and human), humans are referred to as “speakers.” A mere word or two from our lips can elevate or deflate another person - or ourselves.  How we speak to ourselves has a great effect on how we feel and what and how we will do. 

Of course, words also possess potential. How we use them, how artfully we string them together, how we invest ourselves in them, what kavana (intention/consciousness) we fill them with, all make a huge difference.   

As the 15th-century Torah commentator Abravanel said: “tefilah b’lo kavana k’guf b’lo neshama” (prayer without kavana is like a body without a soul). The very same words of prayer can be uttered perfunctorily and leave us unmoved, or can totally transport us.  After all, we are called “b’nai Yisra’el” (the children of Israel), those who wrestle with the Divine. 

I believe that Jacob’s blessing was not only reflected in the change of his name, but also in the quest to live out the implications of his new name.  May we also merit the name of b’nai Yisra’el by striving for a consciousness of the Eternal in the midst of the ephemeral.   

MARK ELBER is rabbi of Temple Beth El, in Fall River.