“And she called his name Reuben” Genesis 29.32
What’s in a name? The economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner note that the most popular names in each generation are the names of successful people in the generation before. Names hold the wishes and the aspirations of parents for their children. We learn what is really important to a person by the names he or she chooses.
In our reading this week, each of the sons of Jacob is named by his mother. Each name is accompanied by an explanation. Why do Leah and Rachel — native speakers of Aramaic living in an Aramaic speaking country — chose Hebrew names for their children? Why do the explanations only make sense to Hebrew speakers?
Obadiah Sforno (Italy, 16th century) suggests that the names were well known in Jacob’s family in previous generations. Just as today we name people after grandparents, so Rachel and Leah chose names from Jacob’s family. This would explain the use of Hebrew. The names were chosen to connect the children to their history.
But the commentator Eliyahu ben Amozag (Italy, 19th century) considers all the names to be original. The choice of Hebrew names shows us how important Hebrew was to Jacob. He made sure that his wives learned Hebrew and used it. By the time the children were born, using Hebrew was natural to them.
These two explanations represent two different approaches to preserving Jewish identity. For Sforno, we make our children Jewish by linking them to their past. For Ben Amozag, we keep them Jewish by making sure that Jewish culture is an active part of their present and their future.
Preserving Jewish identity in a foreign land has always been a challenge. Teaching our children their history is an important start. But Ben Amozag is right; it is only when Jewish culture becomes a vital part of our everyday lives that it has the power to endure.