BEN: What’s in a name?
Last week’s Torah tale saw the creation of the clan of Jacob and delighted the t translator in all of us with the rich punning and wordplay in the names of the sons and daughter – the future tribes of Israel. The mythic process of naming reminds us how a biblical name rests on a root word that can turn a name into a characterization of a people. It is the youngest of the sons, born in this week’s episode, Vayishlach, that catches our eye, little Benjamin.
The context: The clan has returned to Canaan. Jacob has wrestled with an unnamed force and become Israel (the most famous of the name changes in the Bible). And right after the reunion with his brother Esau, it is Rachel’s turn to give birth for the second and last time:
But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrat—now Bethlehem. JPS: 35:18
In a book where name changes are significant markers, here are two changes that happen so quickly as almost to escape notice. One is historical, perhaps Political – Ephrat is also known as Bethlehem. The more striking one is the emotional change: Ben-oni to Benjamin, Rachel’s last choice, Jacob’s revision – what’s the story?
The JPS Bible simply gives the two names and leaves the interpretive translation to the notes: Ben-Oni: son of my suffering (or strength); Benjamin: son of the right hand or the son of the south.
The Fox translation calls him Son-Of-My-Woe and Son of my Right Hand.
Oni might also be translated as wrong or iniquity and there are commentators who see Rachel’s name for her son as an admission of her guilt— and her death as a punishment—either for stealing her father’s idols or wishing another son after Joseph. The reference to the South could refer to the tribe of Benjamin’s strategic importance in the south and of its role in bringing forth Israel’s first King; Saul.
All these considerations of the name were in play this past Sunday when we gave a workshop for a group of Jewish men and women who had been bereaved by 9/11. Convened in the immediate aftermath of shock and pain, the group met regularly, traveled to Israel together last year, and continues to meet for facilitated sessions of support, sharing, and exploration. For this group of survivors, the figure of Benjamin became particularly powerful. They knew as their own the face of loss, regret, guilt, and sorrow, and the face of strength, hope, and growth. For many, Jacob’s immediate decision to override his wife’s dying breath was seen as a brave and necessary act of claiming life over death. In fact each of them had been their own Jacob, wresting hope from loss, but wrestling with loss as a way of gaining strength.
Benjamin, who has hardly any story at all in the chapters that follow, stood in that circle as an emblem of bereavement and redemption. In his double name, we acknowledged the two-sides of the soul and saw our own stories reflected in him.
Lauviticus would like to suggest: ‘Rachel’s soul departed, and as she died she named him son of suffering, but Jacob named him son of right.’
Either way, we suspect the brothers probably just called him Ben for short, or – Sonny.