The Meaning of Benjamin’s Name
Child-raising in today’s Jewish America is serious business. The prime virtue is preparation. The drive to be prepared reaches its climax in the test preparation industry. All responsible parents must ensure that their children are thoroughly prepped for the standardized tests that open the doors to good schools and, ultimately, good jobs. Especially diligent parents don’t wait until high school. The drive to organize everything for a child in advance extends not only to infancy but to the prenatal period. It is not uncommon for parents to find out the gender of the fetus, schedule a caesarian section on a particular day, and, if a boy is expected, reserve a mohel and a caterer. Naturally, these parents have already selected a name for the to-be-born child.
Naming a child is widely acknowledged to be the prerogative of parents. Even those parents who don’t subscribe to the organize-everything-in-advance culture do give thought and care to the selection of their children’s names. They realize that although their influence over their children might be limited, the names they give them usually stick. Today, a decision of this importance is usually made by both parents. In the Book of Genesis, it is primarily the mother who names the child. In contrast to the more recent practice of naming children after ancestors, the Biblical method was to give the child a name reflecting either the mother’s state of mind (luckily, we don’t do that anymore, or most children would be named Exhausted) or a hope for what the child would become.
This week’s parasha completes the initial phase of Jacob’s family history. Jacob returns to the Land of Canaan with his wives, concubines, eleven sons and a daughter. He encounters his brother Esau and parts from him without coming to harm. His encounter with the Canaanites among whom he settles takes an ugly turn when his daughter Dinah is raped and her brothers massacre the Canaanites in revenge. Toward the close of the parasha, Jacob’s last child is born. This is Rachel’s child, her second boy. She dies in childbirth, but not before naming him Ben-Oni — the son of my distress.
Jacob does not accept that name and calls him Bin-Yamin, the son of my right hand. It is that name (Benjamin) that remains. In naming her son as she did, Rachel broke with the pattern set by Jacob’s other wives, and which she followed in the case of her son, Joseph, of naming children as an expression of hope rather than fear. Yet Rachel’s choice of a name accurately reflects her knowledge that she was about to die. Furthermore, it gives necessary weight to her role as a tragic figure who was the first love of her husband yet was never able to live a settled and fruitful life with him.
What, then, is the meaning behind Jacob’s calling the child Bin-yamin? Rashi offers a number of explanations, one of which is that yamin means “south.” The family was traveling toward the Negev when the child was born, and this, the first of Jacob’s children to be born in the Promised Land, was named in recognition of part of that land. The practice of naming children after regions of the Land of Israel continues: Israelis today have names such as Gilad or Carmela. Rashi supports this explanation with a reference to Psalm 89:
The heaven is Yours, the earth too
The world and all it holds, you established them
North and south (yamin), you created them
Tabor and Hermon sing forth your name.
The Psalm continues;
Yours is an arm endowed with might
Your hand is strong;
Your right hand (yeminkha) is exalted. (Ps. 89:12-14)
Perhaps Rashi is implying that “yamin” is more than a geographical designation. In fact, the most common sense of the word as used in the Bible is the right hand, specifically as a symbol of strength. Perhaps by giving his son the name he did, Jacob was expressing a hope for strength, the strength that he and his family would surely need to recover from the troubles that had hit them already and those that were to follow. The Torah’s clear message is that Bin-yamin remain the preferred name of Jacob’s last son. It was a name not of reflection but of preparation, not of dwelling on past sorrow but of hoping for future achievement. Yet the Torah was also careful to preserve the earlier name of Ben-Oni as a way of honoring Rachel and acknowledging her suffering.
The name Benjamin has been popular in America from colonial times to the present, among Jews and Christians both. Of the three U.S. presidents who bore names from the Hebrew Bible, one of them (Harrison) was a Benjamin. Although it cannot be said that generations of parents all knew the origins and interpretations of the name, perhaps a subtle recognition was at work, a recognition that life is composed of large measures of both sorrow and hope, and a name can reflect both.
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer