Parashat Lech Lecha / What’s in a (New) Name?

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Abraham and the Angels, by Aert de Gelder (1680-85)
Yakov Z. Meyer

The Torah is written in two genres: narrative and legal. The narrative sections tell a historical-mythological story, creating their own inner logic. At least from the rhetorical standpoint, they do not deal with anything external to the text. In contrast, the goal of the legal parts is clearly externally oriented: The law presented in the Torah seeks to shape the reader’s behavior. Whereas the subjects of the narrative sections are the biblical protagonists, described in the third person, the subject of the legal sections is the reader, whom the text addresses directly in the second person.

The Book of Genesis and half of the Book of Exodus are narrative in character. From the second half of Exodus onward, the Torah intersperses legal sections with narrative ones. Almost all the texts in Leviticus are legal in nature; it contains only two brief narrative passages.

However, the question of whether a given passage in the Torah is narrative or legal is not dependent solely on the nature of the text itself: Sometimes it is dependent on the way the reader perceives it. An example can be found in this week’s portion, Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 - 17:27).

When Abram turns 99, God reveals himself to the patriarch, informing him: “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee” (Genesis 17:5). These words are ostensibly addressed solely to Abraham and are an integral part of the book’s narrative. But in the eyes of Bar Kapara and Rabbi Eliezer, they constitute a commandment for all eternity.

“Bar Kapara learned the following: Whoever calls Abraham ‘Abram’ is violating a prescriptive commandment [mitzvat asseh], as it is written, ‘but thy name shall be Abraham.’ Rabbi Eliezer countered: Whoever does so is violating a commandment containing a prohibition [mitzvat lo-ta’asseh], as it is written, ‘Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, p. 13b).

Although the rabbis disagree over the nature of the sin committed (in terms of the type of commandment it violates), they concur that the text is addressed not only to Abraham but also to the reader, whose life is shaped by this text as is the patriarch’s. The latter’s name must be pronounced in a specific manner – as Abraham, not Abram – and this obligation stems directly from the narrative developments concerning his character. The commandment concerning the pronunciation of his name is meant to shape his image in the reader’s mind, which is disengaged from the text and which will be henceforth uttered in the proper manner by his descendants, in accordance with the twists and turns of the biblical narrative.

However, the Talmud does not accept the words of the two Tannaim at face value, and in the same passage poses the provocative question: “Does this mean that henceforth whoever calls Sarah ‘Sarai’ is also committing a sin?” Abraham is not the only biblical figure to receive a new name; his wife is also given a new name by God. Thus, the Talmud asks: Are we therefore to assume that whoever calls Sarah by her previous name, ‘Sarai,’ is also transgressing – violating a prescriptive commandment or a prohibition?

The Talmud itself offers an answer: “In Sarah’s case, God addresses only Abraham, as it is written, ‘And God said unto Abraham: “As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be”’ [Gen. 17:15]. God is commanding only Abraham, not posterity, to address Sarah solely by her new name. Thus, whoever calls Sarah ‘Sarai’ is not committing any sin.”

The Talmud persists, asking: “Does this mean that henceforth whoever calls Jacob by his previous name ‘Jacob’ [rather than by the name “Israel”] is also committing a sin?” Like Abraham, Jacob is given a new name by God – “Israel” – after successfully contending with the angel in a nocturnal battle.

Here as well, the Talmud uses the same line of reasoning: “In Jacob’s case, the Torah itself backtracks, as it is written, ‘And God spoke unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said: “Jacob, Jacob”’ [Gen. 46:2]. There is thus no necessity henceforth for one to call Jacob only by his new name, Israel, because the Torah itself refers to him by his old name even after God has changed it. In Abraham’s case, after God alters his name, the Creator calls him solely by his new one.

Now the Talmud, however, challenges the position taken by Rabbi Kapara and Rabbi Eliezer, and questions whether Abraham is, in fact, consistently referred to by his new name after God’s renaming of him: “Rabbi Yossi, son of Avin, retorted, or perhaps it was Rabbi Yossi, son of Zavida: But it is written, ‘Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram” [Nehemiah 9:7]!’”

After the Levites address Israel with the words, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting” (Neh. 9:5) – they turn to God and briefly recount all his glorious deeds from the time of Creation onward. Inter alia, they say, “Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham” (Neh. 9:7).

This quote, in which Abraham is referred to as “Abram” even after having been renamed by God, ostensibly refutes the position taken by Rabbi Kapara and Rabbi Eliezer. Here again, the Talmud answers its own question, “This is not evidence to the contrary because, in this case, the prophet Nehemiah is simply listing God’s great deeds in chronological order” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, p. 13b). Nehemiah is simply stating a fact: Abraham was originally named “Abram,” and was renamed by God.

The metamorphosis Abraham undergoes when God renames him continues beyond the narrow limits of the biblical text – into the life of the reader, who is commanded to always refer to the first patriarch as “Abraham.” According to Rabbi Kapara and Rabbi Eliezer, the fact that God changes Abraham’s name is not merely a historical event: It transcends the confines of history and constitutes a commandment that must be obeyed for all eternity. The renaming thus redefines the reader’s relationship with the biblical text.

On the surface, it would appear that the interpretation of the passage concerning Abraham’s renaming as a commandment for future generations separates God’s instruction regarding Abraham’s new name from its narrative context, and constitutes a non-literal reading of the biblical text. However, when this interpretation is considered more closely, one realizes that it is documenting an exceptional Weltanschauung regarding the act of reading, and that this worldview is essentially a literal reading of the text. Accordingly, both the reader and Abraham are being addressed by God; it is as if the reader and Abraham are both standing before the Almighty.

Thus, Rabbi Kapara and Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation essentially erases the boundary between literature and reality; it turns the territory of reality into the direct continuation of the literary continent, and vice versa: Abraham’s life constitutes the emergence of a new reality in the world.

Whoever calls Abraham “Abram” is committing a sin – whether it’s the violation of a prescriptive commandment or of a commandment of prohibition – and is ignoring the internal laws of the story, thereby refusing to become the subject and protagonist of that story. Whoever refuses to become the protagonist of the story is a reader whose reading of the biblical text is a failure.