A Proud Name – Va-yishlah 5781

D'var Torah | Genesis

Names are identifiers. Concealing a name gains a measure of security. Revealing a name is a measure of pride. Two stories illustrate this point: one from Greek mythology and one from the Torah.


In need of resupply for their continuing voyage, Odysseus convinces his men to go ashore on an island inhabited by Cyclops: one-eyed, savage giants. In their search for food they come across an uninhabited cave with a store of milk and cheese which they eagerly take. But rather than leave immediately with their fortuitous find, Odysseus convinces his men to wait for the arrival of the occupant and accept from him the expected gift of hospitality. Polyphemus the Cyclops, son of Poseidon, scoffs at offering any hospitality.


After sealing the entrance of the cave with huge boulders, he demands to know who these interlopers are. Odysseus refuses to give his name, identifying himself as “Nobody.” Polyphemus proceeds to eat Odysseus’ crewmen two at a time. Unable to budge the boulders and make their way out, Odysseus and his surviving crew ply Polyphemus with wine and, with a piece of timber they sharpened, blinded the one-eyed giant. In his stumbling rage, Polyphemus moves the boulders to the side and Odysseus and his men escape. When his fellow Cyclopes asked who did this to him, Polyphemus could only say “Nobody” did this to me, allowing Odysseus his escape. It was only as he sailed away did Odysseus reveal his name.


The Torah tells how Jacob wrestled all night with an unknown assailant; Jacob demands that he reveal his name. The assailant evades revealing his identity as an angel of God (Genesis 32:31). It is only later that, with his change of name, that Jacob is able to surmise who his assailant was. In the Odyssey, Odysseus was able to protect himself from capture by hiding his name and proclaiming his name only as a victory shout. Sixteenth century Italian rabbi Abraham Menahem Rappoport intuits the similarity in the two stories, though certainly would not have read the Odyssey. In his commentary entitled Minhah Belulah he explains that it is the way of the world for victors to make their names known but for losers to hide their name in shame.


Jacob’s name is changed to Israel: he who wrestles with God. We Jews are a God-wrestling people. Like Abraham, we dare to challenge God in the name of justice and fairness. And we bear with pride the name Jacob earned with his victory.


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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