Detail from "Jacob and Rachel at the Well" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
Detail from "Jacob and Rachel at the Well" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Name game shows us: We need a Judaism steered by joy, not antisemitism

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4–36:43


I’d like to turn your attention to a deeply puzzling scene in this week’s Torah reading that depicts the birth of Jacob’s youngest son.

Jacob’s wife Rachel had excruciating labor pains and she realized that she would not survive. In her final moments, she looked at her newborn with infinite tenderness and profound emotion, and with her last ounce of strength, she named him Ben-Oni — “Son of Sorrow.”

But Jacob was dissatisfied with that name, we are told, and called him “Benyamin, Child of Strength.” At his son’s birth bed and his beloved wife’s deathbed, Jacob overruled Rachel, vetoing her dying wish.

I have read that story many times and have struggled to understand Jacob’s conduct.

Previously, when his children were born, Jacob had been happy to leave the name selection to the mother. Why, then, did he intervene in this instance and scrap his beloved wife’s last wish?

In the ancient world, particularly in the Torah, one’s name was more than just an identifying label. It declared something to the world about who you were and what you stood for. A name expressed an ideal to which its bearers were expected to dedicate their best effort and talents. It was a destiny.

When Rachel felt her last moments approaching, she worried about what would happen to her child as he grew up without a mother’s care and guidance. He probably would not understand much of what she had stood for, or the sacrifice she had made in order to give him this life.

And so she selected a name that would serve as a constant reminder of the tragedy that had overtaken her when he was born. “And she called him Ben-Oni, the son of my sorrow.” That name, she was certain, would keep her son from forgetting her. He would try to live up to the noblest standards of his mother as a debt of gratitude to her memory.

Of course, we can understand her intentions. She was doing what she could to ensure that her example would outlast her.

But Jacob overruled her deathbed wish and named their son Benjamin, “child of strength.”

Why?

He wanted the child to remember Rachel’s strength and courage, not her pain and death. He wanted strength and courage to be her legacy and to be the story the boy would tell himself as he grew into a young man.

Precisely because he loved and admired Rachel, he wanted Benjamin to focus on how she lived, not how she died. Benjamin, the child of strength, Benjamin the child of courage.

Rachel would always be with him, but it would be the Rachel who had been bright and brilliant, the Rachel who let nothing daunt her, who was always resourceful.

The two names of Benjamin are not just two names, but in the most profound sense, they also express two different ways to live Judaism. The first is animated by suffering and tragedies. It is haunted by antisemitism.

The second defines the Jewish people not as an object of persecution, but as the agents of an exceptional vocation, God’s ambassadors on Earth.

It suffuses our Jewish identity with happiness, not sorrow, and is a Judaism that teaches our children that it’s good to celebrate Jewish holidays, exhilarating to study Torah and a joy to do mitzvot.

It’s a Judaism animated by Benjaminite strength.

Confronted by the choice of names — Ben-Oni or Ben-Yamin — the Torah chooses Ben-Yamin. Both are Jewish and both reflect a truth of our history and our people. There are moments of Ben-Oni in our calendar when we do remember and mourn for the past. And of course, we absolutely must remain dedicated to keeping alive the memory and the truth of the Holocaust, particularly when Jews are under assault from many quarters.

Nonetheless, victimhood cannot be the foundation of Jewish identity.

A Judaism animated only by antisemitism will fail to build the future. A Judaism animated by the story of antisemitism will be bitter and hateful, and that is not the way to recover from our hurts.

That particular kind of Judaism fails to build the future because antisemitism, while it may remind us that we are Jews, provides no reason for us to want our children to be Jewish. On the contrary, no decent person wants to hand over to their children the burden of being hated and destroyed.

That is why the generation of American Jews raised solely on a diet of Holocaust education is deciding, at an alarmingly high rate, to not hand down Jewish identity to their children. It is a burden that they are setting aside as unfitting — and unfit — to carry forward.

Without tradition, without mitzvot, without some element of observance, there will be no membership in a Jewish community tomorrow. In a Judaism without tradition, the flame of Judaism, its message, its purpose, its very essence, is only going to end up being lost.

But when we live a Judaism inspired by heartfelt joy, warmth, depth, passion and love, it thrives.

That is a Benjaminite Judaism. That is the kind of Judaism that was the source of inspiration for a hundred generations of our ancestors. This is a Judaism that will build the future of our people.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.