Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In our parsha, we have two opposing sides, brothers who compete with one another in the womb, during birth, in childhood, and then in adulthood. We have Yaakov on the one hand and his brother Esav, also called Edom.

Why and how did they receive their names? At first glance, there may seem to be an easy answer. After all, Esav was born “admoni” (red), so he is called “Edom.” Likewise, Yaakov was born with his hand on Esav’s heel, that is to say “ba’akev Esav.” So he is called Yaakov, which shares the same root with the Hebrew for “heel.” It translates to something along the lines of follower, or heel follower, or footstep follower.


This should have been the end of the story so far as names go. However, Yaakov and Esav are named again, later on. First, Esav, tired after a day of hunting, demands, “Now pour this red, red stuff down my throat because I am tired.”

Having demanded “ha’adom ha’adom hazeh,” the very red stuff, we read, “therefore he was called Edom (red)”. Yaakov receives his name a second time much later on in our Torah portion, from Esav himself. After Esav discovers that Yaakov has tricked their father and has taken his blessing, he complains bitterly:

And he said, “This is why he is called Yaakov! Va’yaakveni – he has fooled me twice! He took my right to being firstborn and see, now he has taken my blessing!

Va’yakveni is a difficult word to translate and interpret. Most commentators seem to take it as meaning “trapped” or “fooled,” but it could mean something like to “reverse” or “radically change” as in the verse in Isaiah when mountains reverse or radically change their nature to become plains. At any rate, here it is Yaakov who is named a second time.

If someone came to you and said “My name is Abraham because this is what my parents named me and it is also Abraham because this is the nickname my friends gave me,” you would rightfully be skeptical. It is one or the other, not both. Yaakov is either called Yaakov because this is his name from birth or because he tricked Esav; how can it possibly be both? Likewise with Esav. The Torah tells us he was admoni, red at birth. Yet, he receives the nickname later on because of the episode with the red, red stuff.

What is going on here? The question finds its solution in how we look at life.

In his work Orot (translated by R. Bezalel Naor), Rav Kook describes two different, yet complementary, ways that we understand our experiences and the world in general. The first way is what he calls the “causal approach.” We are very familiar with this approach from both formal schooling and the rougher school of life. “The causal perspective presents laws that ripple throughout existence…. In the chain of causality there is contained a general restriction, a constriction that constrains laws to those pathways….” In other words, there are strict laws which govern the universe: plants require sunshine and water; children require food and guidance, a good job with a good salary requires years of hard work and preparation, and so on. These are “restrictive,” as Rav Kook points out. Human beings cannot grow one hundred feet tall; the laws of physics and biology simply do not allow for it.

A rather prosaic application of this idea shows how useful this idea is:

Take a certain refrain that is repeated over and over again by the sports commentators Bill Simmons and Ryen Russilo. When they discuss basketball players – winning players, team players, selfish players, gritty players, and so on – they very often point out that after a while, we know what to expect from various characters. Certain guys come into the league and are team players, always looking for the win. After a number of years watching them, we can say confidently that this is who they are. On the flip side, this goes as well for selfish players who just look to score. After we’ve watched them for a number of years, we know who they are. At a certain point in your career, you are who you are. Some players just can’t seem to make it to practice on time; some are toxic locker room presences. Others are leaders, go after the rebounds, etc. At a certain point, you are who you are; this is what the causal chain has led to.

The second way of looking at the world is what Rav Kook calls the “ethical” approach. Yes, we are born with certain proclivities, but we may change or overcome them. The man who overcomes his nature has reached “a higher plane of freedom,” he has been “freed of this causal restriction, and the entire structure of laws appears to us as being held together by ethical bonds that are no weaker and are even stronger than those of the causal explanation.” That is to say – to return to the prosaic example – some selfish basketball players eventually learn to pass, rebound, play defense and team basketball. They may be naturally selfish, they have been encouraged to be selfish; still, change is possible. “When the ethical universe is revealed to us, it uplifts the causal universe,” Rav Kook says. We can learn to be better people, notwithstanding what and how we should be. The causal chain of things is not discarded so much as transcended. Indeed, it is “uplifted,” as Rav Kook says. This is because our past now leads to spiritual greatness, or whatever moral accomplishments we have attained.

In naming Yaakov and Esav twice, the Torah refers to this idea. Indeed, Yaakov was Yaakov because his parents called him as such and Esav was always going to be called Edom because of his very red hair and complexion. This is the causal chain; their names were chosen for them by their parents or physical characteristics. Then, however, the Torah highlights that each of them actively adopted paths that matched what people called them. Esav may have always been red but it was his obsession with it in adolescence that made it clear that this was a good descriptor for him. Edom was the hunter, red faced from running, coarse, curt, and ruddy.

Yaakov sought out tents, solitude, and study. Physically weaker than his brother, he required cunning and persistence to match him in competition. Each had a name from the “causal” approach. Each had a name from the “ethical” approach, a name that they chose for themselves through their actions.

In our case, we too must contend with a name. We each carry the name Yehudi, Jew. How did we come by this name? This is, for the vast majority of us, the name that we carry because we were born into it, because 10 tribes disappeared and only Judah remained, and we were born to this remnant group of our people. It is simple cause and effect, an unchosen reality.

But now the time has come to earn the name of Yehudi. In a few weeks time, we will read in the parsha how Yehuda stood up to the Egyptian viceroy on behalf of his brother Binyamin. Likewise, we will stand up for our brethren, here and in Israel. We must be courageous and strong and put in everything we’ve got. The name Jew is sacred; if people stomp on it, we must convince them they have made a grave mistake.

Yehuda also stood, perhaps more than anything else, for repentance. This is fortunate. He was a man of the “ethical” approach, a man who had so many reasons to fail, who did, in fact, sin and make terrible mistakes, who then turned himself slowly back toward G-d. He went from outcast sinner to leader among his brothers, a baal teshuva. We must now call upon all of our brothers and sisters to live as Jews. Let us call upon them to enjoy the fruits of our traditions – our books and laws, our customs and songs, our stories and places. Too many Jews do not now have the strength or knowledge to carry the name. Let us gird ourselves, strengthen ourselves in our Judaism so that we may help them.

We must be calculated and persistent as Yaakov was; masters of self-control, as was Yitzchak; kind and faithful, like Avraham. Most of all, to be Jewish now means to take responsibility for one another. We must earn our name.

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Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community. Find Rabbi Sprung’s podcast, the Parsha Pick-Me-Up, wherever podcasts are found.