Parashat Vayishlach 5781

2 December 2020 – 16 Kislev 5781

Rabbi Igor Zinkov

How do we use our names? In 2004, the economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan published a study of whether people’s names had any bearing on their academic performance and career development.1 They concluded that names send signals about who we are and where we come from. In other words, names are often used in the society to control social processes and create expectations about a person.

Names play an important role in Jacob’s life story. From the very moment of birth his name sends a signal. The name Jacob (יעקב) comes from Hebrew root aqav (עקב)‎, meaning “seize by the heel”, “restrain”. It is a wordplay upon Hebrew iqqbah (עקבה)‎, “heel”. From the very day of his birth Jacob is destined to be the second, the one who follows upon the heels of his brother.

After the acquiring birthright episode, Jacob had to flee from home. En route to Haran, Jacob experienced a vision of a ladder, or staircase, reaching into heaven with angels going up and down it, commonly referred to as “Jacob’s ladder”. The first thing Jacob does when he wakes up in the morning, he gives name to the place. Since he had an encounter with God in that vision, he names the place Beit El, “The house of God”.

In this week’s Torah portion, we find Jacob on the way back to his homeland. After many years in Haran, Jacob acquired wealth and a large family. He is about to meet his brother, whom he tricked and undoubtably feels guilty about. Jacob struggles with his feelings and finds himself in a difficult position. On the one hand, he had God’s promise that he will return to his birthplace in peace. On the other hand, he divides his family and possessions into two camps to protect at least half of them in case Esau will strike and prevail.

The night before he is meant to meet his brother face to face, Jacob stays alone, and prays:

“I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau” (Genesis 32:11-12)

Immediately after that, Jacob experiences the second mysterious encounter – he wrestles with an angel. After a night-long struggle, he defeats the God’s messengers. The first thing Jacob does after the fight, he asks the angel’s name. (Genesis 32:30)

Why is it so important for Jacob to give names to everything? What changes when we know somebody’s name?

In many traditions and cultures, names are strongly associated with the ability control. In Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, magicians can control someone by learning their true name, and use the true name of inanimate objects in spells. In the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, a magician cannot have full control over a demon if the demon knows the magician’s true name. Daoist traditions emphasize the capacity of talismans, charts, and diagrams to depict “true names” of spirits. The true name of a spirit inscribed on a talisman gives a temporary control over the entity whose name is possessed.2

Perhaps, Jacob too wanted to control everything. All his life he had a power over his fate and did everything to manipulate the outcome in his favour. The encounter with the angel was the first time when Jacob could not control the outcome. Angel blessed Jacob saying, “You must not ask my name!”

Perhaps, the Torah text underlines an important idea for all of us. However difficult it might be, you are not in control of everything in your life. Sometimes your blessing should come from the place of trust and not control.

Today, when we are in the position of the pandemic, we often feel that we have little control over many aspects of our lives. Perhaps, Jacob’s story can be a good lesson for us that trust and believe in a better future is the best blessing we can give to ourselves.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.


1Read more:
2Steavu-Balint, Dominic, The Three Sovereigns Traditions: Talismans, Elixirs, and Meditation in Early Medieval China (Ph. D. Dissertation, Stanford University, 2010).

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