We are well into the month of Elul, the month of teshuva. As such, we are going to focus on the opening sentence of our parsha because there is a message buried in it concerning our primary battle in life.
The parsha begins, “When you will go out to war against your enemies, Hashem, your God will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture his captivity” (21:10). The Zohar Chadash (Parshas Ki Seitzei, pg. 58) says that this enemy is referring to the Yetzer Hara.
Today, we are going to share a specific method that we can use to enable us to successfully battle against our Yetzer Haras.
The Zera Kodesh cites Rebbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov who says that every person possesses two names: 1) a holy name and 2) an unholy name. Every person should beg Hashem to reveal to him what his unholy name is so that he can transform it into a holy name.
This idea is hinted to in the first verse of this week’s parsha. The vserse says, “When you will go out to war against your enemy,” referring to the Yetzer Hara, “Hashem your God will deliver him into your hand,” on condition that “Vishavisa Shivyo” (that you capture the one that has been taken into captivity).
The one who has been taken into captivity refers to the person’s unholy name which has been captured by the Sitra D’Achara (the dark side). How do we know that the one taken into captivity refers to the person’s unholy name? The answer is hinted to in the word “Shivyo” which is spelled with four letters: shin, beis, yud, and vov. When these letters are unscrambled, they serve as the acronym of the pasuk, “V’eileh Shemos B’Nei Yisrael” (and these are the names of the children of Israel; Parshas Shemos, 1:1). Those names have been captured.
That verse in Parshas Shemos continues, “Haba-im Mitzrayma” (who came into Egypt). Mitzrayim represents the dark side into which the names of the Jewish people have been taken captive. This explains why most of us do not know our unholy names. It is because they have been taken from us by the dark side. All this information begs us to ask a series of questions.
Where did we get our unholy names from? In most cases, when parents name their children, they choose holy names. When people convert to Judaism, they choose holy names. So, where did the unholy names come from? Additionally, how could we ever find out our unholy names? Moreover, how could we ever transform our unholy names into holy ones?
In Meseches Chibut Hakever (chap. 2) it reports to us what happens after we die. Rebbi Eliezer says that after a person is buried, the Malach Hamaves (Angel of Death) sits on the person’s grave. The Malach Hamaves hits the person to wake him up. Then, the Malach Hamaves asks that person, “What is your name?” Typically, the person will respond, “I do not know what my name is.” At that point, the person becomes liable, and he is punished.
The Arizal (Sha’ar Hagilgulim, preface, 23) asks another series of questions. Why does the Malach Hamaves ask the person what his name is? Doesn’t he know? When Hashem told the Malach Hamaves to take the soul of “so and so,” the angel knew his name. If so, why is he now asking the deceased what his name is?
Additionally, why doesn’t the person know his name? His name has been with him for his entire life. How did he suddenly forget it? Also, why does forgetting his name result in punishment? Forgetting a name should not be a reason to punish him.
The Arizal says that every soul possesses a holy name (See Berachos, chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 7b, Rebbi Elazar; Tehillim, 46:9). A person’s holy name describes the person’s strengths and talents. In fact, in most cases, when parents think about what they are going to name their children, Hashem orchestrates that the parents’ reasons fit in with Hashem’s ultimate reason. Meaning, parents undergo a bit of Ruach Hakodesh (Divine Inspiration) when naming their babies. Ultimately, the names they choose are the names Hashem has already chosen for that child which describes the person’s essence.
However, Hashem created a world of opposites (Koheles, 7:14). This means that just like a person has a holy name, so too, does he possess an unholy name. The person’s unholy name describes the person’s weaknesses, shortcomings, and flaws.
Can you imagine what would happen if a person became aware of his or her unholy name? We would be able to use that name to help us better understand our faults. We would be able to concentrate on rectifying those areas. We would be able to avoid many sins. We would be able to prevent our souls from becoming spiritually unclean and circumvent Chibut Hakever (literally, “the banging of the grave,” where four angels beat the spiritual filth out of the soul, very much like one would beat the dirt out of a talis that got soiled with mud caked on it).
The Arizal says that Hashem is the One Who gives the person his unholy name. When the Malach Hamaves asks the person, “What is your name,” he is not asking about the individual’s holy name. He is asking about his unholy name. The reason why the Malach Hamaves asks about the unholy name is because he wants to see if the person ever tried to figure out his unholy name. The Angel of Death wants to see if the person ever used his unholy name to analyze it to better understand his faults so that he could work on repairing them.
This is why most people respond that they do not know their names. It is because they do not know their unholy names. This also explains why the person is punished so severely just because he did not know his name. It is because, not knowing his unholy name resulted in his never truly knowing what his failings were. He was never able to fix his faults and, therefore, he was never really able to accomplish the mission that he was sent on.
The Maggid of Koznits (Avodas Yisrael, Avos, 4:1) says that a person can get an idea as to what his unholy name is. A person’s unholy name is connected to the person’s greatest challenges in life. Each person has his own unique Yetzer Hara which pulls him in a certain direction. Some people struggle more with anger, while others have greater issues with jealousy. Some people suffer from arrogance, while others have more difficulty with lustful passions.
The area in life which is most difficult to a person is why he was sent down to Earth. Man was sent here to overcome the tendency which bothers him the most. It takes a lifetime to overcome these issues, and that’s why God gave us a lifetime.
When Ben Zoma says, “Who is a strong person? One who conquers “yitzro” (his inclination; Avos, 4:1), the word “yitzro” must be stressed. It is his yetzer, that is unique to him, that he must overcome. When the opening verse of this week’s parsha says, “When you go out to war against your enemy,” (the Yetzer Hara) the words “your enemy” must be stressed. It is your personal enemy that you must overcome.
The Gemara in Succa (chap. 5, “Hachalil”, pg. 52a; Rav Avira, and some say Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi) says that in general, the Yetzer Hara has seven names: 1) Hashem called it “Ra” (evil; Parshas Noach, 8:21), 2) Moshe called it “Arel” (uncircumcised; Parshas Eikev, 10:16), 3) Dovid called it “Tamei” (impure; Tehillim, 51:12), 4) Shlomo called it “Sonei” (enemy; Mishlei, 25:21), 5) Yeshaya called it “Michshol” (stumbling block; Yeshaya, 57:12), 6) Yechezkel called it “Ehven” (stone; Yechezkel, 36:26), and 7) Yoel called it “Tzifoni” (hidden; Yoel, 2:20).
The Rema (Toras Ha-olah, vol. 2, chap. 26) says that these seven names represent seven-character flaws that the Yetzer Hara uses to tear a person down. The seven-character flaws correspond to seven beautiful character traits that a person can possess. The seven positive traits are: 1) Chesed (kindness), 2) Gevura (discipline), 3) Tiferes (balance), 4) Netzach (commitment), 5) Hod (gratitude), 6) Yesod (basics), and 7) Malchus (self-confidence).
Therefore, the seven character flaws are: 1) meanness (which is the opposite of Chesed), 2) undisciplined (which is the opposite of Gevura), 3) unbalanced (which is the opposite of Tiferes), 4) not committed (which is the opposite of Netzach), 5) ungrateful (which is the opposite of Hod), 6) trivialities (which is the opposite of basics), and 7) low self-esteem (which is the opposite of Malchus).
The Yetzer Hara uses his seven names to inject these seven-character flaws into the person in order to destroy him. This is why Shlomo Hamelech said, “A righteous person may fall seven times, but, he will rise up again” (Mishlei, 24:16). Although a righteous person may fall to these seven personality flaws, he knows how to pick himself back up by transforming them into the seven beautiful character traits.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that the way we can transform an unholy name into a holy name is by fulfilling the pasuk which says to love God “Bichal Levavecha” (with all of your hearts; Parshas Vaeschanan, 6:5). The Mishna in Berachos (chap. 9, “Haro-eh”, pg. 54a) says that the plural word “Levavecha” (as opposed to the singular word “libcha”) teaches us to love God with both inclinations of the heart, the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer Hara.
Whenever we take something negative and transform it into something positive, we are transforming the unholy name into the holy one. For example, the secular world likes to party. Many of those parties are filled with immorality. However, we can take the concept of a party and turn it into a mitzva. For example, when a person has completed learning a mesechta (tractate), we throw a party for him, called a siyum. Or, we throw a party when a chassan and kallah get married. It’s called a chasuna. These are parties that are filled with kedusha v’tehara (holiness and purity).
The Ba’al Shem Tov (Parshas Bereishis, 158) says that the Mishna does not say, “Who is a strong person? One who is docheh (pushes away) his yetzer,” rather, it says, “Who is a strong person? One who is kovesh (conquers) his yetzer” (Pikei Avos, chap. 4, “Ben Zoma”, Mishna 1). Anybody can push the Yetzer Hara away. But, a truly strong person takes the Yetzer Hara and conquers it by transforming it into a Yetzer Tov.
All of this information will help us understand a popular minhag (custom) of ours. The Eliyahu Rabba (Rabbi Eliyahu Spira, 1660-1712, Prague; chap. 122:3) cites the “Beis Yud” (which does not stand for the Beis Yosef, because the following information is not found in the Beis Yosef. Rather it stands for “B’Rashi Yashan”; See Micha, 6:9 and Rashi there; Acharonim) who says that it is a good practice to say a verse at the end of the Shmoneh Esrei, before the second “Yihiyu L’ratzon” (may it find favor; Tahillim, 19:15), which begins and ends with the same letters that the person’s Jewish name begins and ends with.
In Kitzur HaShelah it says that the recitation of this verse serves as a segula (charm) which will help a person remember his name after he dies. Apparently, this contradicts what we said above. Earlier, we said that the Malach Hamaves asks a person what his unholy name is. Now the Shelah is telling us to recite a verse which corresponds to the letters of our holy names so that we will remember what our names are when asked by the Malach Hamaves. How does a verse corresponding to our holy name help us remember what our unholy name is?
The Ba’al Shem Tov Al Hatorah (Parshas Shemos, #3) says something which answers this query. He says that our unholy names are alluded to within our holy names. For example, the names of the Shevatim (tribes) are most certainly holy. The name Reuven means, look at the difference between Leah’s first-born son, Reuven, and Yitzchak’s first-born son, Eisav. Although Reuven lost the birthright to Yosef by force, Reuven tried to save Yosef’s life. By contrast, Eisav sold his birthright to Ya’akov legitimately, and yet, tried to murder Ya’akov because of it (Parshas Vayeitzei, 29:32; Berachos, chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 7b, Rebbi Elazar). Therefore, the name Reuven is a beautiful name.
The name Shimon means that Hashem heard Leah’s pain and prayers (Parshas Vayeitzei, 29:33). This is a lovely name. The name Levi means that my husband will be joined with me (Parshas Vayeitzei, 29:34). What incredible shalom bayis! A fantastic name. The name Yehuda means that I will thank Hashem (Parshas Vayetzei, 29:35). This is a great name.
However, every one of those names carries a negative connotation within them. After all, Hashem created a world of opposites (Koheles, 7:14). So, for example, the name Reuven means, look at me, I am the son. This smacks of arrogance. The name Shimon implies that he does mitzvos so that everybody will hear about it. This sounds like seeking honor. The name Levi means to join accomplished people so that he can benefit from them. This feels like selfishness. The name Yehuda means that the person performs his actions so that people will thank him and praise him. This person does only in order to seek recognition from others.
This Ba’al Shem Tov teaching explains to us how we could ever find out what our unholy names are. Our unholy names are right under our noses. Right beneath our holy names are our unholy names. Therefore, the recitation of a verse which corresponds to our holy names does serve as a charm to remember our unholy names. Once the verse reminds us of our holy names, we are simultaneously reminded of our unholy names.
The Agra D’kallah (Parshas Lech Lecha) adds that our unholy names can be detected within our holy names just by changing the letters and vowels of our holy names around. For example, the name which Yehuda gave to his son, “Eir,” (Parshas Vayeishev, 38:3) is a holy name. The name “Eir” means to “wake up,” very much like the effect shofar blasts are supposed to have on us (See Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva, 3:4).
However, when the letters ayin reish, which spell “Eir,” are read backwards, reish ayin, it spells “Ra” (evil). This can be done with other names as well. When a person is drawn after holiness, his primary name is his holy name. But, if a person is drawn after unholiness, his primary name is his unholy name.
In Mitzrayim, the Jewish people did not change their Jewish names (Vayikra Rabba, Parshas Emor, 32:5, Rav Huna quoting Bar Kappara). This means that the Jewish people were drawn after holiness. They wanted kedusha. Therefore, their primary names were their holy names. In that merit, they deserved to be redeemed.
The Agra D’Kallah goes on to say that we should be very careful not to be called by our gentile nick-names. Being called by gentile nick-names is something that the Samech Mem (the most powerful negative angel) tries to arrange. When we are called by gentile names, it distracts us from our holy names. Holy names are meant to serve as a constant reminder as to what our life’s mission is. Gentile names cause us to forget our Jewish names and that causes us to forget our purpose here on Earth. This is why Hashem told Avraham, “Va’agadla Shimecha” (I will make your name great; Parshas Lech Lecha, 12:2). Hashem meant to say that your Jewish name is great for it carries within it your purpose. Therefore, stick with the Jewish name.
The Shvilei Pinchas concludes by saying that the segula of reciting verses which correspond to our names helps keep our names holy. Since the first letter of the verse matches the first letter of our names, and the last letter of the verse is connected to the last letter of our names, it keeps the letters of our Jewish names in order, which is their holy combination. The segula prevents our names from being read out of order, which would be their unholy combination.
Practically speaking, during the recitation of our verses at the end of the Amida, let us beg Hashem that He reveal our unholy names to us so that we are more aware of what it is that we need to work on.
Moreover, we must find time in our busy schedules to study the meaning of our Jewish names. How do we do that? First, we must find out what our verse or verses are. Lists can be found in many siddurim. (In the standard Ashkenaz complete Artscroll Siddur, you can find such a list on pgs. 924-926).
Then, we must study those verses by learning the various commentaries on those verses such as Rashi, Ramban, Radak, Ohr Hachayim, Kli Yakar, etc. We should also explore any Gemara or Midrash linked to those verses and study them. The lessons which will emerge from this research will resonate with us and clarify what aspects of our personalities we are supposed to be concentrating on and perfecting.
So, may we all be blessed with inner wisdom to discover the true meaning of our names, including our unholy names, which carry within them our weaknesses, because this is the discovery of our life’s purpose. May we be granted with the strength and courage to wage that battle against our personal Yetzer Hara successfully – not just by defeating it – but by transforming it into a positive way of serving God, so that when we are asked, “What is your name,” we will be able to answer that question with confidence, and subsequently avoid any amount of Chibut Hakever, because we will have already cleansed ourselves from any spiritual filth.