In Parashat Vayishlach, we read of the death of our matriarch, Rachel, who does not survive the birth of her second child, a boy whom she names Ben-oni. As she lay dying, the baby’s father, Jacob, renames him Benjamin (Gen. 35:16-18). The Torah does not tell us why this change is made. In this midrashic monologue, we imagine Rachel, in her final moments, whispering to her newborn:
"Oh, my youngest child, my baby, you will know me only through the stories of others. I hold you in my arms, knowing that my life is fading. But, even as I wish for decades of time together, I am grateful that our lives have overlapped for this all-too-brief moment. It has taken all my strength to give you life. Now, as I whisper our truth into your ears, I pray that you will be strong.
"Your father has already told me that he will name you Benjamin, the son of his old days (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 197).That is the name he will call you as he teaches you what it means to be a man. But, my young one, that is not your only name. As I brought you into this world, I called you to me by another name, a name that I wrote on your heart even as you grew below mine.
"You are Ben-oni. You are the son (ben) of my struggle (oni) and my strength (oni). (The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis points out that the word, on—alef-vav-nun—can mean both “pain” and “strength.”) You have one name with intertwined meanings, because in the tapestry of my life, the threads of struggle and strength, have been woven together again and again. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish one thread from the other.
"My life has not been an easy one, and giving you life has taken the very last stores of my strength. Even the Power that created this world rested after the work was complete. And now, as I hold you in my arms—my final creation—I know that my struggle will end soon, and I pray that my strength will remain in you.
"Ben-oni, your father is not always strong. All too often, he avoids experiencing pain at all costs, even when his actions cause others pain. The years that we have spent together have shown me that he is a man who loves deeply, but whose bravery and stoicism sometime overwhelm his compassion. When you are old enough, your sister Dinah (Gen. 34) will tell you about your father, a man who wrestles angels and a man who is propelled through this world by his fears.
"Do not let your father convince you that you should avoid your fear and pain. When we turn away from these feelings, they can grow to haunt our steps and close our throats. Jacob’s choice to change your name, my Ben-oni, shows that he continues to sidestep the truth of my struggles. He has refused the name that I have given you because he is already mourning me, a woman he has loved for so many years. He wants to be able to call you to him without remembering the pain of losing me. I understand his decision, Ben-oni, but I wish that he could see that his own grief does not override my decision to give you the name that links us to one another. Your name is my gift to you. It is the gift of an honest story.
"Your father knows that names can shape realities. But even knowing the power of names, he has chosen to erase my gift to you. He has taken away the last chance I have to shape you and has used this naming power to comfort himself.
"This is not the first time that your father has been blinded to the truths of other people’s lives. And so, in this moment, even as my heart is breaking, I have chosen to do what women like me have always done: I have chosen to rely on other women. I have asked Leah, my sister by blood, and Bilhah and Zilpah, my sisters by circumstance, to tell you my story, and they have given me their promises. Our sisterhood has not always been easy, but we know that in this world, women must depend on one another. And so, even as I wish that I could be the one to hold you, I am comforted because I know that my sisters will cradle you in their arms and whisper your true name into your ears (“Leah at Benjamin’s B’rit Milah,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 207).
"They will tell you of Rachel, the woman who created you, and they will call you Ben-oni, the name I have written on your heart. They will remind you that while you may be the son of your father’s old days, you also will always be the son of your mother’s strength."
Rabbi Rachel Bearman is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, CT and the Communications and Marketing Vice President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She is a leader within her local interfaith community and regularly partners with the governments of neighboring towns to address incidents of anti-Semitism and prejudice. Rabbi Bearman is the seventh generation of her family to be connected with a liberal synagogue and has a deep and abiding love of Reform Judaism’s commitment to the pursuit of justice.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes, MAJE, a popular lecturer on raising spiritually balanced, emotionally whole children, is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. A former camp director and North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) regional advisor, Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November, MSSW, co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Shakespeare asks rhetorically, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” ("Romeo and Juliet," Act II, Scene II). However, according to our biblical tradition there’s significant meaning in our names. In their commentary on Parashat Vayishlach, Rabbis Bearman and Kipnes present a beautiful midrash on Rachel’s thoughts and feelings about Jacob having changed their youngest son’s name (Gen. 35:18). Through a flight of imagination their midrash gives a voice to Rachel’s thoughts from beyond the grave “He [Jacob] has refused the name that I [Rachel] have given you [Benjamin] because…. He [Jacob] wants to be able to call you to him without remembering the pain of losing me [Rachel].”
The medieval commentator known as Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) also wondered about Jacob’s reasoning for renaming their son. Radak understands Jacob’s motivations differently. Ben-Oni (the son of my struggle) is renamed Ben-Yamin (the son of my right hand) for two reasons. First, as Rabbis Bearman and Kipnes noted above, Radak believes that Jacob has renamed their son saying that Benjamin is the son of Jacob’s right hand. Benjamin is Jacob’s beloved son that was born in the season of Jacob’s old age.
But this is not the whole story for Radak. He goes on to cite a verse from Psalms (80:18): “Let your hand be upon your right hand man (Ish Y’minecha), on the human being you made strong for your sake” (Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms in a New Translation, vol. 2, pp. 308-309). In this way, the name that Jacob bestowed upon his and Rachel’s son was a name of affection and a name reflecting a heartfelt prayer (Mikraot G’dolot, Radak on Gen. 35:18).
Jacob understood that Benjamin would always know that his mother died while giving him life. Jacob knew that Benjamin would live with a certain degree of mixed emotions about the circumstances that led to his very existence. Furthermore, Jacob was already in the final seasons of his life at the time of Benjamin’s birth and was keenly aware that much of his son’s life would be lived without a living father as well. Jacob knew that Benjamin didn’t need a reminder of those circumstances—he would always be aware of them.
Jacob was sensitive to his son’s needs. Benjamin needed a permanent reminder that he is loved. Benjamin needed a reminder of that love despite the fact that the years of his life and growth coincided with the amount of time that his father’s beloved wife, his own mother, Rachel had been gone.
Jacob, a man of deep faith, felt that his son deserved a name that serves as a constant prayer—Let this boy, who will grow up without the physical presence of his dear mother’s hands, feel God’s hand upon him always. And may he be made stronger by his circumstances not only for his own sake, but for God’s sake, as well.
For Jacob, Benjamin’s very presence was a reminder of his beloved Rachel’s death. However, Benjamin’s presence was also a reminder of her life and of her love. He didn’t need Benjamin’s name in order to remember. What he did need, was for his son to always know love. The love of a father and the love of God. This was the gift that Jacob gave to his youngest son by renaming him Benjamin (Ben-Yamin).
What is in a name? In the case of our biblical tradition, everything.
Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 183–208
Haftarah, Hosea 11:7–12:12
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 349−351; Revised Edition, pp. 241−243