I would like to thank two people I do not know, Efrat Gunin and Josh Waxman, who are in a Facebook group with me. They took the time to help me work out some of the ideas in this d’var. If the ideas are good, it was all them. If not, this d’var is my responsibility.
The past few weeks have seen many tragic events on a global scale, as well as some on a personal scale for my family. As people have responded to these with commemorations and eulogies, I have noticed three types of responses. The first is to really experience the tragedy of the situation. I walk away from these feeling like the speaker truly honored the pain of the moment, but I also leave feeling lost, without a place to turn next. The sorrow seems unending. Another approach has been to strike a tone of hope and meaning. This approach makes me feel uplifted, but also guilty, in that this approach uses the tragedy rather than honoring it. However, sometimes a middle path is struck, honoring the suffering but still presenting hope in it. In our parasha, Vayishlach, Jacob takes this path in naming his son, Benjamin.
Benjamin is the second son to his mother, Rachel, and the last son born to Jacob. Tragically, the birth kills Rachel. Before dying, she names him: Ben Ōni. Jacob, however, calls the child Binyamin (which becomes Benjamin in English translation). Up to this point, the twelve sons and one daughter (of which we know) born to Jacob were named by their mothers, with a potential exception of Levi (this is it’s own d’var). Benjamin’s birth is the first instance where Jacob gives one of his children a name contrary to the wishes of the mother. This exception is even more shocking because Rachel was Jacob’s most beloved wife and we would expect him to carefully follow her desires. However, when looking more closely at interpretations around the two names, we might realize that Jacob actually does honor Rachel’s wishes and pain, even as he gives his youngest son a name infused with hope.
Rashi explains that Ben Ōni, the name Rachel gives Benjamin means, “son of my pain.” Linguistically, the word ōn is connected with mourning in several places in the Bible. This name fits the difficulty of his birth. It also contrasts greatly with Jacob’s name for him, which means “son of my right-hand,” the Hebrew yamin meaning “right-side.” For most people (not the author of this piece), the right hand represents strength. Rashi, however, avoids interpreting Jacob’s naming as opposed to Rachel’s. He explains that “right” in many Biblical sources means “south”, assuming the narrative voice is facing the Jordan river from within Israel. Rashi explains that Benjamin was the only child of Jacob’s who was born in Canaan, which is south of Aram Naharaim, the home of Laban and the birthplace of the other eleven sons. Therefore, Jacob’s name for his youngest son is, “son of the south.”
I have, initially, two issues with Rashi’s explanation. First, Jacob still denies Rachel’s wishes for her son by giving him a name with different meaning than she did, albeit similar-sounding and not as contrary as “son of strength.” Considering we have a principle that it is a mitzvah to uphold the words of the dead (eg see Bavli Gittin 14b), why, then, did Jacob deny Rachel’s wishes? Second, there is another way to translate the Ben Oni to make it match the meaning of Binyamin. While ōn in Hebrew can mean pain, it can also mean strength (there are a series of roots in Hebrew with can take either of two, opposite meanings). Why does Rashi not offer this interpretation of Ben Ōni? In that case, the two names would have exactly the same meaning, and Jacob would not have ignored Rachel’s dying request.
Moreover, the idea that the two names both mean, “son of strength,” makes sense of a midrash in Genesis Rabbah. It teaches that the name Rachel gives to Benjamin is Aramaic, while Jacob gives the name in “the Holy Tongue,” meaning Hebrew. This mirrors the naming of border stones in last week’s parasha, where Laban, Rachel’s father, gives an Aramaic name and Jacob responds by naming it with a Hebrew translation.
But perhaps there is something deeper to Rashi’s explanation. “Son of the south” can have a similar meaning to “son of strength” since the land of Israel, the south, is where Jacob really comes to power--by both besting an angel in hand-to-hand combat, as well as reconciling with his brother, Esau. Running with the midrash’s interpretation, Jacob still honors Rachel’s naming of Benjamin. He does so by giving power to her original Aramaic, but choosing a Hebrew translation for it which interprets it with a different though sensible translation. He knows that Rachel gave her child a name which reflects suffering. Jacob does not deny her this name; Jacob’s time in Canaan, in the “south,” will never be wholly powerful. He continues to be a stranger in that land, afraid of his brother, afraid of the people of Shechem, and eventually feeling food insecurity. But he also reinterprets the suffering - which he too must have felt, having lost his beloved wife - by giving it hope, naming Benjamin both “child of the south” and “child of strength.” But it also does not cover up Rachel’s suffering.
In some ways, Benjamin represents hope for Rachel as well, even in the midst of her suffering. Her first son, Joseph, was named because of her hope, “may God add another son for me,” (Genesis 30:24). Benjamin is the fulfillment of Joseph’s name. Here, her name could be understood as a focus on both her suffering of childbirth and her strength of giving birth a second time. And Benjamin’s descendants, Esther and Mordechai, will show that strength during suffering many years later.
If the name Jacob gives to Benjamin is a translation of Rachel’s Aramaic into the “Holy Tongue,” it might explain what it means to speak the “Holy Tongue,” to call Benjamin, Bin Yamin as opposed to Ben Ōni. That is to, in one fell swoop, use language which honors pain while at the same time giving hope. For that is often what it means to be a Jew; no matter how dire the situation we both respect the difficulty, but to continue to hope for a better world. May we all continue to pay honor to the pain in our lives but find language to infuse that honor with hope for a better future.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום