The Past Is Yet To Come
My remarks at my son’s bar mitzvah tonight. -Gil
The naming of Binyamin is a surprising episode of changes which, when understood, can explain a key attitude in parenting and in life. Rachel, who died in childbirth but lived long enough to name the baby, called him “Ben Oni.” Immediately the Torah tells us that Ya’akov called the baby “Binyamin” (Gen. 35:18). The first change is obvious: Ya’akov changed the baby’s name from what Rachel intended. This is very strange.
Ya’akov’s beloved wife Rachel’s dying words are to give this baby one name and Ya’akov immediately changes that name. What happened to honoring a dying wish, “mitzvah le-kayem divrei ha-meis“? Is this the way any husband acts, much less Ya’akov Avinu?
But the changes go deeper. Binyamin is Ya’akov’s twelfth and final son. The first eleven were named by their mothers without Ya’akov objecting. The youngest, the twelfth, is the only baby in whose naming Ya’akov got involved. You would think that by that point he had already gotten into a pattern of the childbirth process. Why did he change this pattern for Binyamin?
The midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 82:10) states that the name “Ben Oni” was in Aramaic and “Binyamin” in Hebrew. Ramban disagrees but, from the perspective of the midrash, we see another change. Binyamin was the fourth child Rachel named. She gave Yosef his name and Dan and Naftali, the sons of her maidservant Bilhah, their names as well. Those three names are Hebrew. With the fourth child, Rachel changed and gave him an Aramaic name. Why now a name in a foreign language?
II. Past, Present and Future
I believe the key to answering all these questions lies, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Rachel’s death. But first let’s talk about prayer. When you daven, assuming you aren’t looking in a siddur, where do you direct your eyes? Even if they are closed, where do you point them? In the Gemara (Yevamos 105b) there is, you guessed it, a debate about this. According to one opinion, you set your eyes up, einav le-ma’alah. According to the other, you direct your eyes down, einav le-matah.
I don’t think this is just a debate about where to look when praying. It’s about the proper attitude to prayer. On what merit should your prayers be answered? According to one opinion, on your ancestry, your history, where you come from. Focusing on all those merits, joining yourself to all the good deeds of the past generations, you have the best chance of receiving a positive answer to your prayers. After all, who are you–just one person–compared to the many who preceded you and laid down the groundwork for you? This is einav le-matah. Keep your eyes down, to the past, when you are praying so God will answer.
The other opinion focuses on the endless possibilities of the future. The past cannot be changed. The human limitations to which people succumbed have already occurred. But the future bears the possibility of incredible achievement. You can–just maybe–become the biggest tzadik in history. You can reach incredible heights in learning and piety. Direct your eyes up when praying because the future is limitless.
So which is more important? Which must you bring into the present when praying, the past or the future? The Gemara answers that when praying, follow both opinions: einav le-matah ve-libo la-shamayim, direct your eyes down but your heart up. Both the past and the future are crucial in life, critical for your development. In order to live in the present, you need to think about both your past and your future.
No individual springs to life from nowhere. Each of us comes from a family, a history, a back story that partially defines us–our attitudes, our desires. We exist within a context that started before we were born. But we also choose our own paths, determine our futures. We come from someplace specific but go in our own directions.
If you don’t know your background you don’t know yourself and will be handicapped in life. You are missing your foundation, your anchor, leaving you flying in every direction based on the changing winds. If I may take a Mishnah entirely out of context, “Da me-ayin basa e-le’an attah holekh,” know from where you come and to where you are going (Avos 3:1). Because you have to go somewhere or you will remain an emotional child. Even if you go to where you already are, you have to go there. You have to become yourself, discover your talents, find your unique contribution to your family, the Jewish people and the whole world. But if you don’t know your past, you can’t choose your future.
III. Educating for Life
Rachel was a nurturing mother, a traditional mother who imbibed her children with a knowledge of their past. “Shema beni musar avikha ve’al titosh toras imekha” (Prov. 1:8). You receive musar, guidance, manners, proper behavior from your father. And Torah from your mother. What is this Torah? Is your mother teaching you Gemara with Rashi and Tosafos? It’s tradition, history, everything we’ve discussed. Your grandfather may be Lavan, he may be a cheat and a liar, but he’s still your grandfather. He’s a part of you, even if a part you choose to reject. But you can’t reject what you don’t know and you can’t know yourself until you know your ancestors. His genes are in you. His mannerisms and talents and strengths. He’s your family. You can’t escape his influence but you can choose a different path.
As long as Rachel was around, she knew her children would be aware of their history and therefore be able to mature into responsible adults. Rashi (Gen. 31:4) describes her as the akeres ha-bayis, the foundation of the home, the key personality in the family. But as she suffered in Binyamin’s childbirth, she realized that she would not be there for this baby. She would not be able to guide him. Who would teach this baby about his past, his context? That is why she named him “Ben Oni.”
What language did Lavan and his family speak? We know from the treaty he made with Ya’akov. Ya’akov called the place Gal Ed, a rockpile that is witness, and Lavan called it Yegar Sahadusa, the same thing but in Aramaic (Gen. 31:47). Lavan spoke Aramaic but Ya’akov spoke Hebrew. Aramaic was the language of the past, of the exile. Hebrew was the language of the future, of the Jewish people. Rachel named her sons in Hebrew when she was with them to teach them about their past. But when she would no longer be there, she gave Binyamin an Aramaic name so he would have to know the past. What a brilliant idea! You can’t escape your own name. He could not help but someday grow curious about his name’s meaning and investigate its origin.
If it was such a brilliant name choice, why did Ya’akov immediately change it? Why did he reject Rachel’s dying wish? Ya’akov changed Binyamin’s name to fulfill Rachel’s request, not to reject it. When he named the baby Binyamin, he made an important statement. He said that he will take on Rachel’s role. With his beloved wife gone, he will be for Binyamin what she wished she could be. He will teach Binyamin about his family history, the good and the bad. He will make sure that Binyamin is fully prepared to grow up, to know about his past so he can choose his future. He will protect Binyamin like a mother and teach him tradition like a mother. He will instruct him on both the musar avikha and the toras imekha.
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