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What's In a Name?
Video 6 of 8
Here for example is Reuven, the firstborn child of Leah. You see right over here in verse 32. Vatahar Leah vateiled ben - so Leah gives birth to a child; vatikra shemo Reuven - and she calls him Reuven. Now why did she name him Reuven? Well the text says; Ki amrah - because she said; ki ro'oh Hashem b'anyi - G-d has seen my suffering. In Leah's eyes the fact that she is not loved as much afflicts her. As it says over here in verse 31 right before this; Vayar Hashem ki senu'ah Leah - G-d saw that Leah was Senu'ah - we talked about this verse before, she wasn't loved as much as Rachel. In her eyes that makes her feel comparatively as if she's hated. So responding to that, she names him Reuven; Ki ro'oh Hashem b'anyi - because G-d has seen my suffering. Yaakov doesn't love me as much as he loves Rachel my sister, and maybe now that I've given birth to this child, she says; Ki atah ye'ehavani ishi - maybe my husband will love me more. So the name Reuven from G-d has seen my affliction.
Look at the next name. Vatahar od vateiled ben - and she then gives birth to another child. Vatomer ki shamah Hashem ki senu'ah onochi - that G-d has heard; Ki senu'ah onochi - that I am comparatively hated. Vayiten li gam et zeh - and therefore He gave me this other child as some sort of consolation. Vatikra shemo - and she calls his name Shimon. Of course the name Shimon is coming off of the word Shamah as we talked about before. But the larger context is not just that Shimon is named for hearing, but think about what kind of hearing it is. Shamah Hashem ki senu'ah onochi - G-d has heard that I'm not as loved as my sister. Similarly we saw before that Reuven is named for seeing - Ro'oh, but what kind of seeing? Ro'oh Hashem b'anyi - G-d has seen my affliction.
Now look at Yosef's name. Yosef of course is a child of Rachel, the sister of Leah. Vayizkor Elokim et Rachel - so G-d remembered Rachel; Vayishma eleiha Elokim - and G-d heard her. Vayiftach et rachmah - and He opened her womb. For many years Rachel was not able to give birth. Finally; Vatahar - she conceived; Vateiled ben - and she gave birth to a child. Vatomer assaf Elokim et cherpati - G-d has gathered in my indignity of not being able to have another child. This name of course Assaf gets transmuted into Yosef.
So the common denominator in all these names over here is that they're all named really for this conflict between Rachel and Leah, and for the sense of pain, the sense of suffering that each of these respective sisters, Rachel and Leah, feel. Interestingly, later on in the Book of Leviticus, in Sefer Vayikra, Perek Yud Chet, Chapter 18, you actually have this language. When the Torah comes up with the prohibition much later on, and once the Torah is given at Sinai, for a man to marry two sisters. Look at the language. V'isha el achota lo tikach litzror - and a man should not take a woman's sister to be a rival to her. Rashi's interpretation of this word Tzror is that it comes from the word Tzara, which really means to be a rival, to cause her pain. Because by definition if two sisters in a situation when each of them can be a wife to the same man, can lead to rivalry, can lead to pain.
Okay so now coming back to these names, we come back to Reuven's name for example. Think about the challenge that faces Reuven in the story of Yosef and his brothers, it's actually a very interesting challenge. Put yourself in Reuven's shoes. If you were named Reuven, if this was your name, you were named not just the pain that your mother felt, the sense that G-d had seen her pain; Ki ro'oh Hashem b'anyi - that G-d has seen my pain, G-d has seen my suffering. You were called for this. This sense that G-d had seen the suffering in my mother, the suffering that she experienced at the hands of her rival, at the hands of her Tzara. What might you think your Divine calling is? What might you think that G-d wants out of you?
Let's get a little bit more particular about that. So imagine you're Reuven, you're the legitimate Bechor of Yaakov and yet you're not being treated as the firstborn. Yaakov treats the child of the other wife, the wife that in your eyes he loved more, treats him as the firstborn, treats Yosef as the firstborn. How would you feel about that?
Now the brothers have gotten together to avenge your honor as it were, and they take Yosef and they strip him of his coat, and they say, he's not the Bechor and we've got to get rid of him. What would you think is happening? How would you look upon this?
You know, you could be excused for thinking that, well this is the moment. G-d is shining on your destiny. This is the moment that was almost prophesized by my mother's name. Ki ro'oh Hashem b'anyi - G-d has seen my pain, Leah said. Here I am, Reuven, and my job is to avenge my mother's pain and to do what's necessary to get rid of this rival child who is usurping me and usurping my mother.
But that's not what Reuven does. Reuven alone among the brothers is the one who seeks to save Yosef, who has a plan to come back in the middle of the night and bail him out. The text itself goes out of its way to make this clear. When the brothers said; Lechu venahargeihu - let's come and kill him. Vayishma Reuven - Reuven heard what was going on; Vayatzileihu miyadam - and Reuven saved them and said; Lo nakenu nefesh - we can't do this. Vayomer aleihem Reuven - and Reuven said; Al tishpechu dam - we can't kill him, instead let's put him into this pit; V'yad al tishlechu bo - and let our hand not be upon him. The plan of course was to allow him to die in the pit. But that was just the excuse that Reuven was giving to them; Lema'an hatzil oto miyadam - in order to save him from their hands; Lehashivo el aviv - to come back in the middle of the night and return him to his father. This is Reuven's plan.
So essentially Reuven has a fateful choice to make. As the child of Leah, as the child named for G-d has seen my mother's pain, he has to decide what does that mean for him? What then does G-d want from him? There's really two ways of seeing that, the narrow way and the broader way. Here's the narrow way. If G-d has seen my mother's pain, then maybe what G-d wants from me is G-d wants me to avenge my mother's pain. G-d wants me to do whatever it takes to make sure that those who caused this pain, that those who were responsible for it, pay the price. If that's the case, how do I respond to Yosef? Yosef is the cause, Yosef has been treated as the Bechor, Yosef is usurping me, it's happening in the next generation. Not only did my father love Rachel more than Leah, but now he's favoring Rachel's child more than me. So one interpretation is, G-d wants me to avenge my mother's pain.
But there's another possible interpretation, what else could G-d want from me if He has seen my mother's pain? So the other way to interpret this is if G-d has seen my mother's pain, it's up to me to see all who suffer like this. I must never close my eyes to that pain wherever I find it. That's how I respond to my mother's pain. It's a much broader response. That in fact is Reuven's response. Look back in the text.
Vayomru ish el achiv aval asheimim anachnu al achinu asher ra'inu tzarat nafsho behitchaneno eleinu v'loh shamanu - we saw his pain - by the way look at this language over here; Tzarat nafsho. Do you hear the sort of double entendre here? It literally means we saw the pain of his soul. But Tzara as we saw before in Leviticus is the word actually for a co-wife. V'isha el achota lo tikach litzror - the language of a second wife who is a sister that causes pain. What did Reuven do? He saw the pain of the child of a co-wife, the child of a rival. He, the man who is named, for G-d has seen the pain of my mother, now says, what G-d wants me to see is someone else's pain, the pain of the child of my mother's rival. He can see that and he doesn't stop seeing that and he acts upon that. That is Reuven's greatness.
There is of course another response and this is represented by Shimon. If I am named for G-d hearing that my mother was unloved, then how could I possibly hear the cries of the child of my mother's rival? That would betray my mother, betray what G-d wants from me. V'loh shamatem - we saw but we didn't hear.
By the way, once we're talking about names, the interesting thing is, what about Yosef? Remember how he got his name. Yosef, named by Rachel, for; Assaf Elokim et cherpati - G-d has gathered in my reproach, G-d has gathered in my shame. So if you're Yosef what do you think that your mission is? Perhaps the story of the sale of Yosef boils down to a challenge for each brother as to how it is that they understand their name, how is it that they understand what their name demands of them.
The question of what Yosef was up to, what was Yosef thinking when he was tormenting his brothers, what was his plan, did he have a plan? All those questions that we asked at the beginning - those are complicated questions, and we're just getting the beginning of a sense of some things that might be going on here. But there are some ominous overtones right here in the beginning of this story. Remember, Yosef named for; Assaf Elokim et cherpati - G-d has gathered in my suffering. Well what did Yosef do over here? Vaye'esof otam el mishmar - he gathered them in to prison, he gathered them into the pit. He, who was put in a pit is now taking all these brothers who put him there and gathering them into the pit. This is the very verb for which he got his name. Well if you're named, G-d gathered in my suffering, and now G-d delivers the brothers who did all of this to you, what is it that G-d wants from you? The temptation for Yosef is to see if this is what G-d wants. Why else would G-d deliver them into my hand?
But this, I think, is the challenge that faces all the brothers, whether it's Yosef, whether it's Reuven, whether it's Shimon. Later on I'll try to argue that even with Yehuda this is true. With these four brothers, the challenge is, how will they relate to their name? Reuven and Shimon provide two diametrically opposite approaches. As much as we saw before that the Torah seems to condemn what it was that the brothers did in not listening to the voice of their brother and hearing that as having echoes of Cain and Abel and that sort of voice calling out from the pit and not responding. As much as that may be so, shouldn't allow that to overshadow the clear heroism of Reuven, the one who is named for seeing the pain of his mother and yet channels that powerfully, saying, if G-d has seen the pain of my mother it is up to me to not blind myself to that kind of pain. To see that pain just like G-d saw it, everywhere, even in the child of my mother's rival.
I just want to close by noting that the Medrash itself heralds Reuven's act in this kind of way. The Medrash learns from Reuven that you should always do a Mitzvah with a full heart. She'ilu hayah Reuven yodei'ah - if only Reuven had known; SheHakadosh Baruch Hu machtiv alav - that G-d Himself would write about him in G-d's own Book, these immortal words. Vayishma Reuven vayatzileihu miyadam - and Reuven heard what the brothers were going to do and he saved Joseph from their hands. If Reuven had only known that those words would have been immortalized in the Torah, he wouldn't have just suggested to his brothers to put him in the pit and then surreptitiously try to double back for his brother. Instead; B'kseifo hayah molichu etzel aviv - he would have hoisted Yosef on his shoulders and brought him back dancing to his father.
A friend once remarked to me before Rosh Hashanah, he said, you know the problem with life is that it doesn't come with a soundtrack. You know the point of a soundtrack in a film is to help you follow the score; when the kettledrums are playing you know that something dramatic is going to happen, when the violins are coming in you know that there's something romantic happening. But in life you never get to hear the soundtrack. Maybe after 120 years you hear the soundtrack, you know what the significant points in life are, but you never know those points when it's happening. He said, that's really the point of this Medrash. In the Torah's eyes this is the significant point of Reuven's life, this is what is immortalized about Reuven for generations. Vayishma Reuven vayatzileihu miyadam. This is the highpoint. Reuven's ability to transcend the narrow meaning of his name and to actualize the meaning of his name at a higher, more universal level. To say that if G-d has seen my mother's pain, that I need to see that pain wherever and whenever it exists. That's where the soundtrack was playing. That, in the Torah's judgment, was the high point of his life. That's how thousands of years later we in the eyes of the Medrash are meant to remember him.
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