Jewish Journal

Behind the Name

Parshat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

by Rabbi Elazar Muskin

Posted on Nov. 15, 2001 at 7:00 pm

A number of years ago, a philanthropist who visited the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's rabbinical seminary on the Lower East Side of New York prepared to give a large gift to the yeshiva.

He insisted, however, that the venerable rabbi give him a grand tour of the classes being taught at the yeshiva. Feinstein was more than happy to oblige, and they went from class to class, sitting in on several of them as they walked through the school.

After the tour, Feinstein took the man back to his study, hoping to hear the amount of his gift. To his surprise, the man informed him that he would not give any gift to the yeshiva. Stunned, Feinstein inquired why he had a change of heart. He responded that he felt the yeshiva wasn't teaching the students what they needed to learn. He said that it was a mistake to spend so much time on Talmud and Jewish law because the boys weren't being taught the essentials. Feinstein asked him, "And what are the essentials?" He answered, "Dikduk," Hebrew grammar. "They simply don't know Dikduk," the man asserted. Feinstein turned to him and said, "No, you are wrong. It's Dikduk."

We often think we put the emphasis on the correct issue when in reality we miss the main point. A good example of this can be found in this week's Torah portion. The question is: How was it possible that Isaac and Rebecca could have two sons, twins, no less, educated in the same environment, sent to the same schools and yet, who turn out so drastically different?

The 19th century Chasidic genius, the Shem MiShmuel, offers a brilliant insight that answers this question. He suggests that the secret lies in the names of the two boys. He notes that in the Bible, the name of a person always describes the person's essence. Esau has the same letters in Hebrew as asu (made, completed). This indicates that Esau was a man who felt no need for self-improvement. He was perfect, complete in every way. Indeed, the numerical value for asu equals 376, which is the same as the word shalom. Shalom not only means "peace" but also "wholeness." Esau was entirely at peace with himself. He did not, and could not, feel the need to improve because he saw himself as perfect.

Jacob, however, was just the opposite. Jacob in Hebrew means heel. Jacob imagined himself as a heel, a lowly person, someone who needed to achieve much more for himself. He was a climber, always prepared to engage in self-improvement and self-criticism.

With this in mind, the Shem MiShmuel quotes a remarkable Talmudic comment. The Talmud, in Berakhot 13a, states: "Anyone who refers to Avraham as Avram [his original name] has transgressed a positive command, but anyone who refers to Israel as Jacob has not transgressed, as Torah itself calls him by this name later on."

In this comment, the Talmud implies that both names contain the same concept. On the one hand, the name Jacob means heel, and on the other, the name Israel derives its meaning from "striving with God and man and prevailing."

This observation contains a great message for all of us. We must take to heart the difference between Jacob and Esau. Esau's inherent downfall came from his inability to emphasize the correct issue. Repeatedly, Esau missed the main point. Over and over again, Esau refused to appreciate the need to change his ways, to improve. Jacob, on the other hand, became our role model because he could grasp what was essential. Jacob realized that the ability to scrutinize one's actions, and change accordingly, is the key to a valuable Jewish life.

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