D’var Torah: We dance with the souls of our namesakes to find ourselves


Lisa Mandel

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh


“Alexander the Great had a soldier in his army who bore his own name but was a great coward. The emperor, enraged at the soldier’s conduct, justly said to him, ‘Either change your name, or learn to live up to it.’ ” (From “A Complete Treasury of Stories for Public Speakers” compiled and edited by Morris Mandel.)

What is in a name? In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzi, we read about Leah and Rachel, and Bilhah and Zilpah, who give birth to sons and a daughter, each bearing a name with meaning. There is an intimacy as we read these verses in the voices of women. Jacob’s voice is absent.

Names signify who we are and who we become. Names reflect us and where we are at the moment of the child’s arrival. We name for our loved ones whose goodness we pray will be a part of this new soul. Names provide insight into the personal and familiar dynamic. It is a struggle like the one Jacob will face with an unnamed Divine Being. Here, the struggles are named.

I love the midrash that every child has three names: the name from our parents, the name our friends call us and the name we acquire for ourselves through acts of righteousness. In Proverbs, we read that a good name is more desirable than great riches.

In “Towards a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s words and stories are carefully illustrated in ways that explode with substance. He addresses the life process to “transform our material world into a vehicle of spiritual expression and Godliness.” We are given the gift of life, a name and then the “race” begins.

What do we do with our lives? As the rebbe said, “Once you acknowledge the soul, you must begin to learn how it functions. You realize that the soul comes from a greater spiritual place, and that it is trying to introduce Godliness into your life. You learn that the soul is what leads you toward a meaningful life, and in order to nourish it, you must study and familiarize yourself with God’s wisdom.”

How often do you think about your name? For whom were you named? What does your name mean? What are you doing with your soul to enhance the world and the gift of life? It is our soul that drives us to feed the hungry, work toward peace and celebrate a relationship with the Eternal One. Our souls, like our names, are distinctly ours.

The contemporary Israeli poetess Zelda wrote a poem entitled, “Each of Us Has a Name.”

Each of us has a name
Given by God
And given by our parents …
Each of us has a name
Given by the seasons
And given by our blindness.
Each of us has a name
Given by the sea
And given by
Our death.

It is a challenge to struggle with what we have been given and what we wish to achieve. Like Jacob, who will struggle with Divine Beings and change his name to Yisrael, each of us must search for the Divine within and around to actualize our potential and find meaning both in the mundane and in the holy. We must dance with our soul and the souls of those for whom we are named. It is there that we will find ourselves.

This portion, however, begins with Jacob’s journey. He is a simple soul who has left his home. He had a dream. He bargained with God. He found God and declared the place awesome!

His travels and experiences are challenging. Like us, he feels the Divine Presence and recalls the promise made along the side of a road. And yet, he has a name. A name given by his parents. The name given by God is yet to be bestowed.

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.