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Torah Commentary
Tol'dot (November 22, 2014)

Missy Bell,
Program Director
of Youth Learning and Engagement

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS that happens in this week’s parashah, Tol’dot, is that Isaac’s wife Rebecca gives birth to twins. The first is named Esau, sometimes translated as “the hairy one” and sometimes as “developed and robust.” The second is named Jacob, meaning “one who grabs the heel.” These names not only describe them as they are born but also describe their destinies. Esau is the more physical of the brothers, a hunter and an outdoorsman. Jacob continues to hold his brother’s heel, tripping Esau up by tricking him into giving Jacob his birthright and tricking their father into giving him Esau’s blessing.

Rashi tells us, quoting Genesis Rabbah, that Jacob:

Held onto him lawfully, to restrain him. Jacob was formed from the first drop and Esau from the second. Go forth and learn from a tube that has a narrow opening. Insert two stones into it, one after the other. The one that entered first will emerge last, and the one that entered last will emerge first. The result is that Esau, who was formed last, emerged first, and Jacob, who was formed first emerged last, and Jacob came to restrain him so that he should be the first to be born as he was the first to be formed, and he would open her womb and take the birthright by law.

The Jewish traditions surrounding naming are some of our most fascinating. Names in the Torah are filled with meeting — Adam being called Adam because he was formed from the earth. Isaac was given his name because Sarah laughed when she learned she was pregnant at her age. The reasons behind the names of each of Jacob’s 12 sons are described in detail in next week’s parashah.

Today, we still are encouraged to give just as much thought to giving names and rituals surrounding names. Ashkenazi Jews often give children names honoring relatives who have passed away, while it is a Sephardic custom to honor the living. The more superstitious among us may choose not to reveal a child’s name until the child is 8 days old and officially has joined the covenant of the Jewish people. When someone is sick, they might change their name for protection.

The opportunity to give a name — to a child, or even to a program, company or organization — can be incredibly meaningful, but it is also a heavy responsibility. Were Isaac and Rebecca aware that they might be contributing to their children’s destinies by choosing the names they did? Will your child love the meaningful name you chose or find it boring and outdated? Will the name you choose for a business or organization still be the right one 20 years from now?

When is the last time you were able to give a name, and why did you choose it?

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

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