Names are a big deal in the Bible. Getting them, giving them, changing them…they’re all a big deal. This week’s parasha, Vayeshev has a lot of name changes in it. Sometimes it’s people, sometimes it’s places, but each time it happens, it signifies an important event that happened.
The most well-known one is when “Jacob” becomes “Israel”. In Genesis 32, Jacob finds himself on one side of the river Jabbock, alone. The rest of his family is on the other side. The next day he will meet his brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. They hadn’t parted well; Esau was out to kill Jacob for having stolen his first-son blessing. That night, “a man (God? Angel? Human?) wrestled with him until the rise of dawn.” (Gen 32:25) Jacob prevailed. The man disappeared at dawn, but not before Jacob insisted that he bless him. The man said, “What is your name?….No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and prevailed.” Something that profound would change a man, and it was reflected in Jacob’s new name. The place changed names, too. Jacob named that spot “Peniel”…the face of God.
Later in the parasha, Jacob renames a place “Beth El” (house of God) Here is another instance of Jacob encountering God in a place where something profound had occurred. It was originally called “Luz”, but that name would no longer do for what happened there. Jacob built an altar there because that’s where “God had been revealed to him.”
At the very end of the parasha, there is another re-naming. Jacob’s youngest son is born., and the only other child of Jacob and his beloved Rachel. Rachel, with her dying breath, names him “Ben Oni” which can mean “son of my suffering” or “son of my strength”. Was this baby the last of her suffering, or the last of her strength? In any case, Jacob immediately re-names the child, “Benjamin” (son of the/my right hand.) Could he not bear to call this child such a sad name, since his birth coincided with his wife’s death? Or, in the pattern of Jacob’s re-naming moments, had something profound happened there?
As when he encountered God, Jacob marks the place by arranging the physical space. He built a “pillar” at her burial site, memorializing Rachel’s life, death, and his love for her. Jacob couldn’t stay put. He had to continue his journey, taking this newborn with him. Perhaps, as Jacob became painfully aware of the limits of Rachel’s life, he also became aware of the continuation of his love for her. He had been changed by the events of his son’s birth, perhaps more than he expected. Jacob wasn’t ever going to be the same, and even though he couldn’t change his own name – God did that – he could mark the weighty, sorrowful moment by changing his son’s name.
Perhaps from then on, Jacob leaned on Benjamin, his right hand, especially after Joseph disappeared. Perhaps Benjamin, the youngest son, destined to have one of the smallest territories of all the tribes, learned from the beginning his life was at the expense of someone else’s life. Did he ever know about his name-change? I hope so. I hope his father told him about his mother, how she had held on with the last of her strength, so he would live; that like all the other profound moments in his father’s life, Jacob chose to mark it for all time.