A Genealogy in Mikketz: Learning Names and Cleaving to God (2008)

This Devar Torah was written for Divrei HaYamim, the newsletter of the Office of Student Life at the Jewish Theological Seminary. As usual, I have reposted but not formatted:


Shalom passed by a locked door. Normally he wouldn’t wonder what’s going on behind a door, but he heard thumping and shouting from behind it. Whatever was going on in there sounded violent. He was too curious to leave. After a few minutes, he saw someone pass by and asked, “Hey, do you know what’s going on in there?”
She put her ears to the door and exclaimed, “A battle of wits!”
“A battle of wits?!” he repeated in disbelief.
“From what I hear, it’s a battle of wits,” she nodded. “I hear the voices of Abramowitz, Denowitz, Falkowitz, Horowitz, Jacobowitz, Rabinowitz, Yonkowitz…”
We often look at lists of names and forget that, though it’s obvious, just as each person has a name, each name has a person. I personally find this very true in reading the Torah’s genealogies, our biblical lists of who bore whom or who begot whom. At the end of Parashat Va-yera, we come to a brief genealogy, only 5 verses long (Genesis 22:20-24). For many of us, the most exciting part of this genealogy is that Rebecca’s name appears (in verse 23). In fact, Rashi says, regarding the mention of Rebecca:

Each of these relationships wouldn’t have been written if it weren’t for this verse!

Out of five whole verses, Rashi found purpose in just a segment of one!? Believe it or not—Rashi’s comment may be progress compared to a great earlier companion to our reading, Bereshit Rabbah (57:1-4), where Rebecca’s name isn’t even mentioned! In fact, Bereshit Rabbah pays such little attention to this genealogy that the least tangential of its comments on this section are, attributed to Rabbis Joshua ben Levi and Yitzhak, puns on some of the less familiar names in our genealogy—for the explicit purpose of describing the rebellious persons behind these names (57:4).
But it’s when Nahmanides comes around that a familiar commentator recalls the importance of the genealogy’s names. Nahmanides writes (regarding verse 24):

The text tells of all good news that the Abraham’s siblings’ children offered. Indeed this is written to inform us—through each relation of Nahor—that each of them is seen as worthy of cleaving as the seed of Abraham.

Though they are ambiguous in meaning, Nahmanides’ words here are so powerful that Rabbenu Bahyei plagiarizes them (commenting on verse 20) a generation later; he defines what “seen as worthy of cleaving as the seed of Abraham” really means:

Cleaving to the Holy One—Blessed be God—as the concept is written (in Deuteronomy 4:4), “You who cling to Adonai your God are living—each of you—on this day.”

Rabbenu Bahyei senses holiness in these unfamiliar names. A relationship formed between even a nobody and a holy person—whether by birth or by a cleaving friendship—can make the unknown holy. The relationships we form in life allow us to embrace and to absorb each other’s holiness.
With every name we learn, we meet another person. And with each person we meet, we can cleave ever closer to God.

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