Sticks, Stones and Names
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me.” A school ground phrase that was first printed in the 1870’s; referred to back then as an ‘old adage’, and some have even tried to connect it to various verses in Psalms.
Truth be told though, the wounds inflicted by sticks and stones will often heal, whereas names can leave scars that last forever.
The opposite is also true; you can raise a child up to dizzying heights and set them on the course of success simply by giving them a good name. As the Mishna says “a good name rises over them all’. (Ethics of the Fathers 4:13)
In this week’s Torah portion we read of Yaackov’s name change to Yisroel following on from his midnight battle with the angel of Eisav. This is the beginning of stage two in our history, when we go from being known as Ivrim to Israelites. (See here for the significance of the name Ivri.) When giving Yaackov his new name the angel says: כי שרית עם אלוהים ועם אנשים ותוכל – for you struggled with angel and man and you succeeded. What is puzzling though, is that the new name Yisroel is etymologically connected with the word struggle. His new name is given for the struggle not for the victory!
That though is precisely why that name was give. The Jewish nation had progressed onto stage two; no longer were we just Ivrim – constantly relegated to the other side, but now we were princes of Hashem, for Yisroel is translated as Sar-el – Prince of G-d. This name was how we were known once we were given the Promised Land, when we were riding high with the Temple in Jerusalem and were the pride of the Fertile Crescent.
This is precisely why the angel connected it to the struggle and not the victory.
Anyone can win a battle, but it takes a man to struggle.
Quite tellingly, even after the blessing of his new elevated name, the Torah still uses the name Yaackov. One would have thought that that name, so given for he was holding on to the heel (Ekev – Yaackov), would now be relegated to history. But that is not the case, and indeed in our Amidah we call on Hashem the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaackov. What happened to this new elevated and princely name Yisroel?
We are back to the struggle and the impact of a name. Were we to be given the name ‘Prince of G-d’, were our past struggles to be totally erased and forgotten, were we to focus on the victory and not the struggle then it wouldn’t last long. It would be a name but not an identity. It would be a gift bestowed upon us by an angel, but not our well-deserved destiny. As they say in the hallowed halls of the SAS, “Its far harder to keep your Green Beret, than it is to get it in the first place”.
Just being given the name Yisroel, even if it is fully deserved does not mean that our job is done; we need to keep struggling, we need to maintain the work necessary to carry that name.