Throughout the Torah various people have their names changed. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai changes to Sarah and Hoshea to Joshua. Jacob even gets an entirely new name: Israel. What is the significance of these changes?
Like everything in Torah, even minor changes have major significance. To understand these name changes better, let Even minor changes have major significance us analyze the idea of a Hebrew name, and what it means to change one. Then, we will take a closer look at the events surrounding these particular name changes, and their significance.
What’s a Word?
In English, or for that matter in any language, words are essentially arbitrary. The name for an object bears no intrinsic connection with the object itself. For example, water is called “water” not because the word itself, or its component letters, have any connection with the liquid. People simply agreed to call it “water” so they could understand each other and communicate effectively. And so it is with every other name in every other language.
Not so with Hebrew, the holy tongue, the language with which G‑d created the world. The 22 letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet represent 22 different forms of G‑d’s life-giving energy. Through these letters, Divine energy enters the cosmos and enlivens all of creation. The Hebrew letters that make up the name of an object represent the different combinations and distillations of G‑dly energy necessary to keep that particular object in existence. Therefore, Hebrew words are precise, for they are the G‑dly life-energy enlivening any given creation. 1
Now for Names
As it is with physical objects, so it is with people. A person’s Hebrew name is their life-force, and therefore has a tremendous impact on that person. The Kabbalists explain2 that when a child is born, a kind of spirit of prophecy rests on the parents, giving them foresight into what name they should give their child. This is because a name is intrinsically connected with the essence of the child, and is a critical component of the person’s makeup.
(On a side note, this is why many have the custom to change or add a name when a person is sick, usually a name connected with healing, e.g., Baruch or Bracha [blessed], Chaim or Chaya [life]. Because a name draws down G‑dly life-force, names associated with healing and blessing are added in the hope that they will draw down a Divine energy of healing and blessing.)
This is the reason for the name changes of Abraham, Sarah and Joshua. All of them were about to embark on an entirely new life-mission, one for which they required a new, different measure of G‑dly energy. And so, their previous names were insufficient to empower them in fulfilling this new mission, and had to be changed.
Abraham and Sarah
Abram (or Avram) is a contraction of two words, av Aram, meaning “father of Aram,” and Sarai means “my princess.” Avraham and Sarah had always dedicatedTheir previous names were insufficient to empower them in their new mission their lives to inspiring others to abandon idolatry and serve G‑d; nevertheless, it was all in a private capacity. Avram was only the “father of Aram,” his own birthplace, and Sarai was “my princess,” personal and private, not to be shared by all.
G‑d changed their names because they were going global. Abram and Sarai were becoming the father and mother, the king and queen of all of humanity, responsible for and dedicated to everyone’s service of G‑d.
This new mission of theirs was expressed almost immediately and tangibly after their name changes with the birth of Isaac, the forefather of the Jewish people, who are called on to be a “light unto the nations.”3
And so Abram’s name became Abraham, a contraction of the words “av hamon [goyim],” meaning “the father of all nations,”4 and Sarai’s name became “Sarah,” which means “the princess.” By changing their names to reflect a broader leadership, G‑d imbued them with Divine energy commensurate to their new, more global life-mission.
Additionally, the Midrash relates5 that when G‑d told Abraham that he would bear a son from his wife Sarah, he looked into the stars and saw that he and his wife could not have any children. G‑d responded by telling Abraham that, yes, Abram could not have children, and yes, Sarai could not give birth, however Abraham and Sarah could have children. This Midrash also shows how, as explained, when a person’s name changes, their G‑dly life-energy changes, and they become virtually a different person, with a different destiny and a different potential.
Hoshea also required a different, more powerful G‑dly energy to succeed in his mission. He was one of the 12 spies sent to scout out the Land of Israel in preparation for the Jews’ conquest.Joshua was imbued with a new energyMoses foresaw that the spies would report negatively on the land and discourage the Jews from entering. He therefore changed Hoshea’s name to Joshua, which is short for “Kah yoshiacha,” “G‑d should rescue you [from the plot of the spies].” With the letter yud added to the beginning of his name, Joshua was imbued with a new energy, which gave him the capability to stand up to the other spies.
(It is interesting to note that the yud, the letter removed from Sarah’s name, was later “given” to Joshua. More on that here.)
Jacob and Israel
Jacob, too, had his name changed, to Israel. However, unlike the three mentioned above, Jacob was still called by his old name. Whereas Abraham or Sarah were no longer referred to by their old names, the Torah continues to refer to Jacob as Jacob, even after his name was changed to Israel.6 The Torah alternates between the two names, sometimes calling him Jacob and sometimes Israel.
This is because Jacob’s name was changed for a slightly different reason than the others. And so, even after his name changed, his old name remained a part of who he was. As the father of the 12 tribes, Jacob contained within him the entire Jewish nation. Therefore, his service of G‑d and conduct in the world are the prototype for every Jew’s service.
Jacob and Israel represent two different methods of navigating the world and the challenges it presents. In the quest to create a dwelling place for G‑d in this world, a Jew can operate in two ways: as Jacob or as Israel. First comes the Jacob way. The word Jacob comes from the world eikev, “heel,” and also from the word for “cheat.” This name refers to a Jew’s service while impeded by the world. At this point, a Jew is like a heel, at the bottom, having to contend with challenges and actively fight them. He or she is in no way above theA Jew can operate in two ways: as Jacob or as Israel challenges and is not impervious to them. To remain connected to G‑d, this Jew must “cheat” the world, so to speak. Meaning, the struggles and challenges presented by the physical world are never completely overcome, only “cheated,” so that G‑d can be served even in concealment.
Then comes Israel. Israel comes from the word sar, “officer,”7 and from the words G‑d spoke to Jacob when he renamed him: “ki sarisa,” “because you fought with men and angels and triumphed.”8 Israel therefore refers to a Jew who serves G‑d in a way that allows for G‑dliness to be revealed for all to see. This Jew is an “officer,” exalted and raised up high above the world, oblivious to the world’s concealments and challenges.
Jacob began with the name Jacob because that is how a Jew begins service of G‑d. He had to “cheat” his father, his brother and Laban, because he was still involved in the world. Only after he triumphed over Esau’s angel and finally returned to the Land of Israel did he attain the elevated status of Israel. Nevertheless, the name Jacob remained in use, because the method of Jacob is still a necessary component of every Jew’s service of G‑d.9