More Than a List of Names – Vayishlah 5779

D'var Torah | Genesis

Genealogies are not the most interesting of documents to read. After all, how can lists of names ever be as entertaining as a good story, especially of the dramatic reunion of long separated brothers? But the genealogies are part of the Torah too, and for good reason. Genealogies convey information that tells us who we are.


The hated Analekites, for example, are included in the list of Esav’s descendants. This means that the tribe that would subsequently attack the frail Israelite stragglers at the time of the Exodus from Egypt were relatives, albeit distant ones. This fact is as embarrassing as it is tragic. However, the compiler of the genealogy is quick to note that Amalek was born to Timnah, a concubine of Esav’s son, Eliphaz (Genesis 36:12), giving the child and his mother inferior status. It is as if the genealogy is intended to convince us that Amalek is not a true Edomite and thus not even a distant relative of our Israelite ancestors. It also removes the Amalekites from the Biblical rule (Deuteronomy 23:8-9) that could have admitted them to Israelite fellowship after the third generation.


It is the genealogy as well that sheds light on a later Biblical episode. One of the names given to a son of Esav is Korah (Genesis 36:5). It is an Edomite name. Yet, it is also the name by which one of the sons of Levi calls his child, destined to be a leader of a failed rebellion against Moses. That a Levite would want to give his child a foreign name is one issue. But that the very same name associated with a rebellion would be the name of an Edomite chieftain and son of the wild, boorish, and self-absorbed Esav is another. It is as if the Torah was alerting us to the fact that the very nature of Korah was influenced by the name given him. In some mysterious way, his name and identity were linked together.


He was not given the name Korah because his family was assimilated, to use modern terminology. He was given the name Korah because his parents intuitively knew the future character of their offspring. As the Bible puts it elsewhere (I Samuel 25:25): “ki kishmo ken hu,” a person is very much like the name that person is given. It is parts of the metaphysics of the universe. And it is a truth that emerges from an often-overlooked list of names.



Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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