What’s in a Name? The Week's End: November 17, 2023
Nov 16th 2023

Jacob and Esau could not be more different in terms of their demeanors and physical make-up. Esau was hairy, Jacob smooth; Jacob was a tent dweller and Esau a hunter. Jacob was quiet and cunning while Esau was loud and boorish. There was, however, one similarity between them. Both brothers had name changes. In two weeks, we will read parshat Vayishlaḥ which recounts Jacob’s fierce battle with a divine being. Although Jacob sustained an injury in this grueling wrestling match, he endured and the angel changed his name to Israel: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).

This week, in parshat Toledot, we read about Esau’s name change. He comes home tired and hungry from hunting. When he sees Jacob preparing a red lentil stew, he shouts, “Give me some of the very red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” – which is why he was named Edom (Genesis 25:30). The Hebrew “adom” (red) is a wordplay on Edom. According to tradition, Edom was a precursor to the Roman Empire and subsequently Christianity. The embryonic and natal strife between the two brothers in this week’s Torah portion foreshadowed the future struggle between the two nations. Amalek is also descended from Esau. The Edomites who migrated to Seir east of the Jordan began to intermarry with the natives. Amalek is listed as the son of a concubine and, as such, of inferior status (Genesis 36:9-14). Of course, the more infamous link with Amalek stems from the Purim story with Haman the Agagite, the descendant of King Agag.

In looking at the circumstances leading up to the name changes for Jacob and Esau, we see a stark contrast between acts of distinction and those of notoriety. For Jacob’s name to be changed to Israel, he had to struggle with Esau. He had to outsmart the cunning Laban and ultimately had to battle and defeat a heavenly being while dislocating his hip in the process. On the other hand, to earn a notorious name, all one must do is one reckless action. Esau exaggeratedly states that he is at the point of death. With one slurp of the stew, Esau gets his new name. It was his animalistic appetite and blatant disregard for life and things that truly matter that made him spurn his birthright.

In biblical and rabbinic tradition, Edom had become a standard name for the hated imperial or medieval Roman Empire, and in religious terms exemplifying Christianity. In our day, the archetypal political and religious enemy seems to have shifted. Islam has come to the forefront as the primary foe with the most recent incarnation of Amalek being Iran and its proxies. With the reckless and heinous crimes against humanity perpetrated on October 7, in blatant disregard for the sanctity of human life, Hamas solidified its name and notoriety as a murderous terrorist organization. The state of Israel, like Jacob, has faced seemingly insurmountable odds and has prevailed. The name “Israel,” though traditionally interpreted to mean “one who struggles with God” is also a title of victory, translated as “a champion of God,” conquering by strength from Above. The Septuagint and the Vulgate translate Jacob’s name change to signify that he prevailed with God and shall prevail against men (i.e., Laban and Esau). We pray that the nation of Israel emerges triumphant in this struggle between good and evil. Esau lived up to his name. May we continue to live up to ours.