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What's In A Name?

||| Vayeitzei |||

In this week's parashah, Vayeitzei [1], we read about the birth of eleven of Jacob's twelve children. About the first one, Reuven, we read [2], "Leah conceived and bore a son. She named him Reuven 'because,' she said, 'the eternal one saw my humiliation, for now my husband will love me.’”

Rashi quotes the words "And she named him Reuven" and comments:

"Our sages explained [3]: [Leah] said: See the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law [Esau], who sold his birthright to Jacob, and he [Reuven] did not sell it to Joseph and did not claim it [when Jacob transferred it to Joseph]. And not only did he not claim it, but his intention was to take him [Joseph] out of the pit.”

We must understand:

  1. Rashi's objective with his commentary is to explain everything that is not clear in the basic understanding of the text. What is not understood in the text here that Rashi sees the need to explain?

  2. At first glance it would seem that Rashi's commentary regarding the meaning of the name Reuven contradicts the explicit meaning given in the text itself. According to Rashi, the word Reu [of Reuven] means "see", while in the text of the verse it says that it means "[G-d] saw”.

  3. Why does Rashi explain the merit of Reuven by contrasting it with episodes that 1) were to occur only in the distant future and 2) were linked to something negative about Reuven (the loss of his birthright and having caused Joseph to be placed in the pit) and not by means of 1) something much closer in time and 2) that expresses his honesty, in contradistinction to Esau's behavior [4]?

  4. Why does Rashi understand that the difference between Reuven and Esau that Leah referenced is merely the fact that he did not sell his birthright as his uncle Esau had done and not —as the Talmud points out— that Esau hated his brother Jacob after having sold him his birthright while Reuven did not feel any resentment as a result of the transfer of the birthright to Joseph?

The explanation:

The reason that appears in the text as to the motive of the name Reuven, "That G-d saw her affliction and that now —as a result of having given birth to a son— her husband would love her" would be easy to understand in general since the love of a man towards his wife naturally grows as a result of her giving birth to a son. But in this specific case it is not so simple, since we are dealing with a woman whose husband hated her [5]. Why did Leah believe that the birth of her son would change that feeling —"now my husband will love me"— if the wife Jacob loved was Rachel who was also destined to give birth?

Furthermore, how could Leah be sure that her firstborn son would behave in a way that would provoke his father's love for her, especially given the precedents that both Abraham's firstborn —Ishmael— as well as Isaac's firstborn son —Esau— did not behave in a worthy manner?

By bringing the explanation of our sages, Rashi wants to explain the basis for Leah's certainty that is expressed in the text.

We can also understand why Rashi contrasts Reuven’s behavior with Esau’s only with regard to selling his birthright: the birth of the first-born —both hers as well as Jacob's, and the importance that Reuven was going to give to the birthright should be cause to awaken Jacob's special affection for him and —as a consequence— for her.

Rashi goes on to say that Reuven did not complain when Jacob transferred the birthright to Joseph, and not only that, but that he wanted to save Joseph from the pit. In other words: although Jacob loved Rachel and wanted to have children with her —which would cancel out the importance of the fact that Leah gave birth to a first-born son— nevertheless, since Leah gave birth to a son of such noble character, that in spite of being Jacob's first-born and valuing that condition, he did not object when Jacob decided to transfer it to his favorite son, Joseph —the first-born of his favorite wife, Rachel—, and not only that, but he wanted to save that very brother who had received his birthright, no doubt, Leah reasoned, as a consequence of having given birth to such a son Jacob would now come to love her!

We can now understand why Rashi highlights Reuven’s outstanding virtue by talking about episodes in the distant future related to the birthright and not through events closer in time and which are not linked to something negative in Reuven's behavior.

We can now also understand how the explanation of the sages cited by Rashi not only does not contradict what is said in the biblical text but actually helps us understand why Leah was so certain that her husband would love her following the birth of her son.

The mystical dimension:

We find two differences between the names of the patriarchs and the names of the twelve tribes: 1) the twelve sons of Jacob, unlike the patriarchs, were given their names by their mothers; 2) the name of each of the twelve sons is accompanied by an explanation, which is not the case regarding the names of the patriarchs.

Why is this so?

Personal names are not determined merely by convention but represent the very nature of the intrinsic bond between the soul and the body. There are two scopes of this bond: general and particular. We are all descendants of all three patriarchs, but we are not all descendants of all twelve tribes. The names of the patriarchs represent the nature of our general connection while the names of the tribes represent the nature of our particular connection. And that is why the names of the tribes were given precisely through the matriarchs: in the formation of a child the father provides a drop containing the essence while it is the mother who —in the course of nine months— develops it in all its details.

One might still ask: the explanations of the names as they appear in the text of the verses describe situations related to the mother rather than the son; what has the name, then, to do with the son’s particular situation? According to Rashi's explanation in the name of the sages regarding the first son, Reuven, (which serves as an example for the other names) it is understood that the names do not only reflect situations related to the mothers giving the name, but first and foremost express something of significance linked to the character and/or history of the son being named.

On a practical level:

Although our general and essential link with our Jewish identity is the basis upon which our identity is supported and built, it is not enough. It is necessary to know how to apply and express it in all the details of our thoughts, words and daily actions. "Jewish" is not only the definition of our origin; it can and should be the definition and description of our personal condition and identity.

Synthesis of Likutei Sichot vol. 10, pp. 92-99


  1. Genesis 28:11 - 32:3

  2. Genesis 29:32

  3. Berachot 7b

  4. See Rashi, Genesis 26:34 y 30:14

  5. Genesis 29:31,33


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