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What’s in a Name? (Vayishlach)

Alexander Pushkin, 1799-1837.

Alexander Pushkin, 1799-1837.

What is my name to you? It will die:
a wave that has but rolled to reach
with a lone splash a distant beach;
or in the timbered night a cry…

It will leave a lifeless trace among
names on your tablets: the design
of an entangled gravestone line
in an unfathomable tongue.

What is it then? A long-dead past,
lost in the rush of madder dreams,
upon your soul it will not cast
Mnemosyne’s pure tender beams.

But if some sorrow comes to you,
utter my name with sighs, and tell
the silence: “Memory is true—
there beats a heart wherein I dwell.”

–Alexander Pushkin, “The Name”

“What’s my name to you?” This is the question that Alexander Pushkin, the “father of modern Russian literature,” poses to his audience in the opening verse of his poem, “The Name.” It is also, with a slight variation, the question that the man (angel?) who wrestles Jacob poses to the patriarch near the beginning of this week’s Torah portion:

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him. And he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he said, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” And Jacob asked and said, “Now please, tell me your name, and he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there And Jacob named the place Peniel, for “I saw [an angel] of God face to face, and my soul was saved.” (Gen. 32:25-31).

This episode occurs as Jacob is gearing up for what he believes will be a violent confrontation with his brother, Esav. After escorting his wives and children across the Jabbok River, the patriarch suddenly finds himself alone with a “man,” who seems to appear out of nowhere. The identity of this “man” is unclear: though context might suggest that he is one of the “four hundred men” of Esav mentioned earlier in the chapter (see Gen. 32:7), Hazal have a tradition that he is in fact “Esav’s guardian angel” (Gen. Rabbah 77:3). Either way, the man “wrestles Jacob until dawn,” at which point Jacob demands a blessing from him. The man, for his part, reluctantly obliges. Then Jacob makes a second request: “Now please, tell me your name” (Gen. 32:30). But the man does not want to reveal his name, so he equivocates; by the next verse, he has left the scene entirely.

There are many points in this passage which require explanation. How does Jacob end up alone on the riverbank opposite his family? Where does the “man” come from? Who initiates the wrestling match between them? What is the significance of the injury that Jacob sustains? And when exactly did he “contend with God and with men?” All these issues are dealt with in the writings of the traditional Biblical exegetes.

Another question which our commentators ask—though this one tends to receive relatively less attention than some of the others—is why Jacob insists upon learning the “man’s” name. Radak asserts that “every [angel] is given a name based on the content of the mission which he has been sent” and suggests that Jacob inquires about the name of the angel whom he wrestles “so as to determine the specific matter over which he had been appointed.” Ramban implies that Jacob seeks the angel’s name in order to gain thereby “the ability which belongs to God alone,” i.e. that of summoning the heavenly creatures at will. Alshikh, for his part, contends that Jacob probes the angel for his name because “he wanted to see whether he would say ‘Michael’ [the name of a benevolent angel] or ‘Samael’ [the name of a demonic angel].” These are three fairly different approaches. Yet all assume that it is ultimately some form of esoteric wisdom which Jacob is after. What “the name” represents, according to the interpretations of Radak,  Ramban, and Alshikh, is spiritual enlightenment. It is a metaphysical secret, a supernatural power—and the patriarch is attempting to access it.

However, this is not the only way to read our passage. Hizkuni, for one, departs decisively from the mystical advanced by some of his contemporaries when he observes:

It is the way of the world that travelers who meet and have never seen each other before upon departing exchange words of love and friendship and ask each other, “What is your name?” [That is to say]: “If you send me a messenger who mentions your name, I will grant him his wish.” And thus Manoah said to the angel, “What is your name? When your word will come, we shall honor you.” And so too did Jacob say to the angel.

This is an intriguing interpretation. Before we can analyze it, though, we must first familiarize ourselves with the proof-text to which Hizkuni alludes. That text is drawn from the end of the Biblical book of Judges. It is the story of an angel who appears to two Israelites, Manoah and his wife,  announcing that the couple shall give birth to a boy named Samson. Manoah and his wife are overjoyed by this news. In that context, the following dialogue unfolds:

And Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “Let us take you in now, and prepare for you a kid goat.” And the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “If you take me in I will not eat of your bread, and if you will make a burnt-offering, you must offer it to the Lord.” For Manoah did not know that he was an angel of the Lord. And Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “What is your name? When your word will come, we shall honor you.” And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask for my name—it is a wonder!” (Jud. 13:15-18).

When Manoah solicits the angel for its name, the angel replies “למה זה תשאל לשמי”—“Why do you ask my name?” This is the exact same response which Jacob receives from the angel in our Torah portion. On the basis of this similarity, Hizkuni infers that the motives of Jacob and of Manoah in posing their initial question are similar as well. The Torah does not tell us why Jacob asked the angel for its name. But Manoah states explicitly the reason for his inquiry: “What is your name? When your word will come, we shall honor you.” Hizkuni, connecting the dots, attributes this intention to Jacob, too. It is a brilliant bit of intertextual exegesis.

What is less compelling, however, is the manner in which Hizkuni parses the phrase “כי יבא דברך וכבדנוך”—“when your word will come, we shall honor you.” For Hizkuni, when your word will come means “when you send a messenger our way,” and we shall honor you means “we will grant your request through that messenger.” But who mentioned anything about a “messenger?” More likely, “your word,” in this context, does not mean your message but your prophecy; and “will come” does not mean will come via a messenger, but simply will come about. Put together, the import of Manoah’s statement to the angel is: “We would like to honor you when your prediction comes true.” The couple, in other words, is not preparing itself to fulfill some yet-unknown request that the angel may or not make of them at a point far off in the future. Their goal is merely to thank the angel for his present kindness by “honoring” him when his prophecy concerning their child is fulfilled.

Indeed, it is for this reason that Manoah offers to “prepare a kid goat” for the angel at the beginning of their conversation. This is also why, earlier in the book of Judges, Gideon—who, like Jacob  in this week’s Torah portion (Gen. 32:21), “sees” an angel “face-to-face”(Jud. 6:22)—begs that angel to “wait here” while he “prepares a young goat, unleavened cakes… and broth” to “serve him under the oak tree” (Jud. 6:18-19). Gideon, like Manoah, receives a blessing from the angel who visits him (Jud. 6:12-16) and seeks somehow to return the favor. But, as in the case of Manoah, Gideon’s gestures are rebuffed: both angels set fire to the food that is presented to them and ascend to heaven in the flames (Jud. 6:21; 13:20). So there is a pattern here.

Ramban, c. 1194-1270.

Ramban, c. 1194-1270.

In fact, that pattern begins in our Torah portion. When we consider Jacob’s exchange with the angel against those of Gideon and Manoah, we realize that what drives his behavior at the end of this scene is precisely what drives theirs—namely, the desire to “give back.” Jacob spends the night wrestling a complete stranger. But then that stranger personalizes the encounter: “the man” asks for Jacob’s name, and blesses him. So Jacob reciprocates. He turns to the man and asks for his name; he, too, wants to confer blessings upon his new friend. Read thus, the ambiguous clause at the end of our passage’s final verse—“and he blessed him”—should not be rendered, “And the man blessed Jacob.” Instead, its meaning is: “and Jacob blessed the man!” There is a neat parallelism here whose function is not only literary, but also moral. Jacob desperately wants to repay the man; he is trying to express his gratitude in the best way that he can.

Yet like Manoah, Jacob apparently “does not know” to whom he speaks. “Why do you ask my name?” the man (read: angel) demurs. According to Ramban, his connotation is, “Do not ask my name, because I cannot do anything for you.” But perhaps what the angel actually seeks to communicate is, “Do not ask my name, because you cannot do anything for me.” At issue here is a theological concept that we have already examined together once before. It is the notion that God has no need to “take” from man. As Pushkin so poignantly reflects in his (moderately adapted) poem, “Secular Power:”

Would you add to the glory of the Lord?
What grace could all your worldly power bring
To One whose crown attests, “He’s king”?

Or, as we put it at around this time last year:

God, Maimonides tells us, does not require anything. Consequently, infers R. Moshe Luzzatto, God would not have created man so that man could give to God; God must have created man so that God could give to him. Indeed, by no coincidence do we refer to the mystical branch of Judaism as קבלה—“kabbalah,” literally, “the act of receiving.” God gives. Our role is to become responsible recipients.

Conversely, of course, if man and woman have been created “in God’s image,” this means that man and woman have been created to give—not to God, for this is impossible, but to each other. God looks at His world and concludes that “it is not good for man to live alone” precisely because man needs somebody to whom he can give. It is what he is here for. As Churchill reminds us: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Or, in the words of blogger Seth Adam Smith, whose provocative article in the Huffington Post went viral this week: “Selfishness demands, “What’s in it for me?” while Love asks, “What can I give?” What Smith writes about marriage applies equally to life itself.

Taken together, then, the angels’ reactions to Jacob, Gideon and Manoah provide us with an important lesson in our avodat Hashem. God neither needs nor desires that we return his blessings to Him. That would be counterproductive. He blesses us because he wants us to pass that blessing on to others. Better than befriending the angels is befriending the lonely; better than feeding them is feeding the hungry; better than providing them with shade is providing shelter for the homeless. There is no better way to demonstrate that we appreciate the talents and the resources which Hashem grants us than by taking them and using them to make our world a godlier place. That is what it means to “strive with God and man:” to accept Hashem’s blessings with open arms, and to share them with the rest of His creatures.

Shabbat shalom!


  1. Shalom Carmy says:

    Good ideas!

    Where did you get Pushkin?



  2. Ian says:

     Brilliant as usual!!!

  3. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thanks so much Alex! Beautiful Dvar Torah!

  4. Brett Bernstein says:

    Very thought-provoking piece with interesting parallels. One question/comment: “God neither needs nor desires that we return his blessings to Him.” If so, how do you understand all the blessings where we say “Baruch ata Hashem…”? I’ve come to think that “Yoducha Hashem kol ma’asecha v’chasidecha yivarchucha” implies that Hashem’s creations “thank” him while his pious ones “bless” him. The difference I think is that saying thank you acknowledges something has been received, but giving a blessing is being so overwhelmed with gratitude that one wants to give something back, and what do we have to give Hashem? Nothing, but the gesture of blessing Hashem, the attempt to give something back, I think is still meaningful as an expression of a higher level of gratitude showing we want to give back. So maybe He doesn’t desire the result of us blessing him (which is of no benefit to Him), but perhaps he desires the gesture on our part which is an expression of intense gratitude for what He has given us?

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