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Name Changes in the Bible: Dr. Peri Sinclair on Parashat Vayechi

Dr. Peri Sinclair
| 28/12/2020

Name changes in the Bible occur on several occasions and raise many questions. Are our names our destinies? Do different names suggest different aspects of a person’s character?

Dr. Peri Sinclair, Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund, explores the many names of our forefathers, as we conclude the book of Genesis with Parashat Vayechi.  Jacob is a father of 13 children. Israel is the father of a nation.  How do these two names reflect our ancestor? How does a person become a nation?

Just like in parashat Chayei Sara which we read back in November, where the story of Sara’s death begins with the mention of her life, our parasha – Vayechi – which literally means “and he lived” focuses on Ya’akov’s death yet begins with invoking the story of his life.

Vayechi is the bridge between the books of Genesis and Exodus, between the story of a particular family and the story of a nation, between Ya’akov, as family head and Yisrael, head of a nation. I would therefore like to focus today on name changes in the Bible in general and on Ya’akov’s name change in particular, which we read a few weeks ago in Parashat Vayishlach.

Twice in Vayishlach we read of Ya’akov’s name change. The different aspects of Ya’akov’s personality are reflected in these names and apparent in the blessings and curses he bestows upon his sons before his death. While he isn’t the first biblical character to have his name changed, this episode stands out on two counts. First, in the cases of other name changes in the Bible – most notably Abraham and Sara – the single letter “Hey” is added or switched in and the name change is finite. There are no “takeses backses.”

In Ya’akov’s case his name isn’t actually changed, but rather he receives a second name. This happens twice – one at the end of his encounter with the Ish whom he struggles with until down before his meeting with Esav and the second time as part of the blessing of the Avot which God bestows on him after all went well.

As opposed to Avraham and Sara, Ya’akov does not lose his given name. He was named Ya’akov because he held on to Esav’s akev (heel) at birth. This name invokes his image as the introvert, homely-boy, the manipulative lad who bought his brother’s birthright, the youngster who needed his mother’s protection, the young man who made his fortune deviously. On the other hand, the name Yisrael focusses on his struggle with the Ish until dawn “כי שרית עם אלוהים ועם אנשים ותוכל” it shines a light on the way he stood up to Lavan who accused him of theft. Yisrael is also drashed as ישר-אל being honest with God – a total transformation from his earlier behavior. This is a new side of Ya’akov which symbolizes perhaps a maturation. As Yisrael Ya’akov is fit to carry Avraham and Yitzchak’s blessing and heritage.

Back to our Parasha – Ya’akov is on his death-bed. The narrative switched between his two names, referring to him once as Ya’akov and other times as Yisrael. Invoking both sides of his personality and encouraging us, his descendants, to recognize and embrace both as well.

The Ramban suggested that the Ya’akov is a name befitting lowliness and exile, while Yisrael is more suited for freedom and independence – which is why it is befitting that Ya’akov goes down to Egypt with this name. I would like to suggest a different reading: Ya’akov is a complex, round character. We are invited to embrace both the good and bad, the deceitful and straight, the lowly or simple and the leader. Even as he became Yisrael, he didn’t lose his Ya’akovness and behaved in different ways in different situation. We to are in times the descendants of Ya’akov, and in other times the descendants of Yisrael. One doesn’t displace the other. We are called upon to recognize this and be aware of our choices and behavior in different situations. I would also remind us the Yisrael is not only about struggles but it also invokes the derecho ha’yashr – integrity.

Shavua tov from Schechter!

Dr. Peri Sinclair is The Susan and Scott Shay TALI Director General.  She received her doctorate in Midrash from the Jewish Theological Seminary and her MA in Jewish Education from JTS’s Davidson School of Education​. Peri is a graduate of the T​ALI​ School in Hod Hasharon and a proud alumn​a​ of NOAM (the Masorti Movement’s yo​uth​ movement).  ​She​ ​has ​spent 15 summers ​in senior staff positions at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  She is married to Dr. Alex Sinclair and together they are raising three inquisitive kids in Modi’in.

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