LECH LECHA (Genesis, 12:1-17:27) — “Tune that Name!”

One of the highlights of the Bris ceremony is the naming.  After the circumcision has been performed, a cup of wine is poured and blessings are recited.  In many circles, the parents don’t tell anyone the name before the actual naming ceremony.  The guests listen attentively, to find out what moniker the little guy will carry with him for the rest of his life.

A name is a very important thing.  There is a tradition that parents are given the gift of Divine inspiration to enable them to select their child’s name.  In fact, Adam was given the task of naming all of the birds and animals, as well as naming himself, his wife and even his Creator!

There is, somehow, within a creature’s name, the very essence of its being.  Adam called himself “Adam”, because he had been formed out of the “Adamah=Earth”.  He called his wife “Isha=woman”, because she was formed from the “Ish=man”, and “Chava=Eve”, because she was the “mother of all CHAI=Life”.  He called G-d “Adon=Master”, which is basically the name we use when we refer to G-d in our prayers.

Adam was not just displaying a knack for turning a pun or making a play on words.  There was great wisdom and profundity utilized in the selection of these names.  This writer is not proficient in the depths of Jewish mysticism (How’s THAT for an understatement!) so I cannot tell you the deep meanings behind the selections that Adam made.  But our Sages tell us that Adam knew exactly what he was doing.

We see G-d doing some name selection in this week’s Torah Portion.  An angel told Hagar that she would bear a son, and that she should name him “’Yishmael=G-d will hear’ because G-d has heard your prayer.”  (Genesis, 16:11) He later told Abraham to name his son who was to be born the following year “Yitzchak=He will laugh” as a reference to the fact that Abraham laughed for joy when he heard the news.  (Ibid. 17:17)

We see, perhaps, an indication of parental Divine inspiration from the fact that ABRAHAM “…gave the name Yishmael to his son” (Ibid. 16:15) although the prophecy had come to Hagar.  We don’t see any indication that the prophecy came to Abraham as well.  Parents somehow know what to name their children.

It is customary among most Ashkenazic Jews and some Sephardic ones not to name children after living people.  Some Sephardic Jews make it a point to name a child after living people.  Sometimes relatives are chosen, sometimes famous righteous people.  Regardless of which custom one follows, it is the universal desire of all parents to give their child an honorable name, and to bless him with the hope that he will grow up to bring credit to his name.

Some of my children are named after grandparents or great-grandparents, and some after great Torah Sages or Biblical heroes.  (When a parent names a child, it is with the hope that the child will grow to emulate his great predecessor.  Therefore, we make it a point to find positive role models after whom to name our children.

Being a Mohel, I am often consulted by parents to help them select a name.  I am often surprised by their selections.  Someone once wanted to name their son Esau until I talked them out of it!  Great!  Name your child after a Biblical figure who was the sworn enemy of Israel!  (After World War 2, many Jews named Adolph legally changed their names.)

It is, therefore, rather surprising that we find that several of the Sages of the Talmud were named Rabbi Yishmael.  Ishmael, the oldest son of Abraham, does not seem to be a person whom we would want our children to emulate.  He was “a wild man, his hand against everyone (in theft — Rashi) and everyone’s hand against him (in hatred — Rashi) and over all his brothers he will dwell.”  (He will be a very large nation) (Ibid, 17:12)  He ridiculed Isaac and his observance of G-d’s Commandments.  He was a murderer.  He was so lacking in ethics and morality that his own father sent him away, so that he wouldn’t be a bad influence on Isaac.  (See “Under the Influence of Dregs”.)

How could it be that parents would want to name their children after such a scoundrel?

The answer, I believe, is that there is an important lesson that can be learned from Ishmael.  To be sure, he was a terrible person.  At least he started out that way.  A son has to be pretty bad to be banished by his father. (with G-d’s approval!)  And most certainly, his descendants have not distinguished themselves as great lovers of Israel.  (A few cases in point:  The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who encouraged Hitler to bring the “Final Solution” to “Palestine”, Yassir Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladin, to name a few)

However, there was something special about Ishmael.  Our Sages tell us that despite a “slow start”, he became righteous later on.  He was spared from dying as a young man, shortly after his expulsion from his father’s house, because he repented his evil ways.  And, to a certain extent,  the repentance seems to have lasted.  When Esau wanted to impress his parents by pretending to be righteous, he did so by marrying into Ishmael’s family. (Ibid. 28:8-9) In fact, our Sages tell us that Ishmael died a righteous man.

Ishmael teaches us that it is never too late to change one’s ways.  The great High Priest Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, when asked by G-d for a “blessing,” responded by asking G-d to always judge His children favorably and deal with them mercifully.  G-d gave that first Yishmael the benefit of the doubt and judged him favorably, allowing him to live, in spite of the angels’ protestations that he should die.  (See “Could the Twin Towers Have Been Saved?”)  Ishmael eventually showed himself deserving of that mercy.

So why aren’t there more Ishmaels in the Jewish community?  I imagine that it is mostly cultural.  In Talmudic times the Ishmaelites had not declared Jihad against us.  Perhaps it was easier back then to separate Ishmael from his descendants.  Today that is much more difficult.

However, there are SOME.  There is, for example, a rabbi I know of whose first name is Ishmael.  I have come across Jews in Arab countries named Muhammad; it wouldn’t surprise me if there a couple Ishmaels out there.  (Much as we find today Jews with Christian names such as Elizabeth, James, Jason, Lois, Matthew, Peter, Paul, Phillip, Stephen, Thomas, etc.)

There, you have it.  A person who starts off less-than-perfect, and strives for greatness, and achieves it.  Is that such a bad lesson?  We can learn something from everyone.  If our children learn the lesson of self-redemption through changing one’s ways, that’s a good thing.

Now, if only Ishmael’s children could learn the same lesson!

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz


From the Archives

“The Surrogate Mother and the Terrorist” (2009) 

…What a story!  Sarai can’t conceive, so she makes Hagar her “surrogate.”  Hagar conceives right away and “disses” Sarai.  Sarai persecutes Hagar, causing her to lose her baby and run away.  The angel tells Hagar to accept Sarai’s tough treatment, and promises that since G-d has heard her prayer, she will give birth to the father of the nation that will eventually give us Arafat, bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein!

Sarai’s behavior is puzzling… 

Read more.


“CHANGE!!” (2008)

 Let’s face it. CHANGE is in the air.  Our country is beginning to undergo a fundamental change in its entire method of doing business.  Some of us welcome the change.  Some of us are profoundly disappointed.  Some of us have great hope and optimism for the future that will be heralded in by our new president and Congress.  Others are frustrated and frightened by what will happen to our economy, our status in the world, our security andIsrael’s security.

Let me give both sides a bit of news.  You’re both wrong!…

Read more.


 “Tune that Name!” (2006)

… it is the universal desire of all parents to give their child an honorable name, and to bless him with the hope that he will grow up to bring credit to his name…

It is, therefore, rather surprising that we find that several of the Sages of the Talmud were named Rabbi Yishmael.  Ishmael, the oldest son of Abraham, does not seem to be a person whom we would want our children to emulate…

How could it be that parents would want to name their children after such a scoundrel?…

Read more.


“There Goes the Neighborhood!” (2005)

… It has happened so many times… How many nations have invited us in, enjoyed success, and then kicked us out?…

This past Tuesday, a rabbi I know was standing in front of the building where he had just voted.  One of our fellow citizens walked past him and made a comment that says it all: “I can’t stand looking at you people!”


Read more.


“The Soul Maker” (2003)

He gazed into her eyes.  He whispered to her words he had never said before.  “I now realize how beautiful you are!”

How romantic!  Who was this young man, who was expressing his fond appreciation of his beloved’s radiance?  Who was this lovely young beauty, the subject of his admiration?

This couple, who had dedicated their lives to teaching Torah, were no youngsters.  He was 75 years old.  She was 65.  His name was Abram; hers, Sarai.  (Later known as Abraham and Sarah.)…

Read more.


“The Salem Trial” (2002)

… It was a major superpower summit.  The most powerful men in the world were about to meet… Chapter 14 of Genesis describes what should probably be called the First World War.  Five kings went to war against four kings.  … What would happen when these two leaders would meet? …  How did “Malchizedek-the-bartender” become “Malchizedek-the-Priest”????? …

Read more.


“The Reward for a Mitzvah…” (2001)

…We’ve all heard of the city ofSodom… Abraham gave up the opportunity to become its king… A great selfless act on the part of our great patriarch.  However, he still could have done more…

Read more.


“A Covenant of Dedication” (2000)

… The Mohel performed the Bris and handed the child to his mother who embraced him, kissed him, and fainted flat out onto the floor!…

Read more.


This is the weekly message at http://TorahTalk.org . Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain in  Monsey,  New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on November 3, 2006 at 11:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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