The Naming of Binyamin: Communication, Forgiveness and Shared Values in the Marital Relationship of Yaakov and Rachel
The most emotionally wrenching episode in parshat Vayishlach is the death of Rachel during the birth of Binyamin. Yaakov had left Shechem and moved to Beit El at Hashem’s direction. In Beit El, Yaakov built a matzeva (pillar), and then departed towards Efrat. On the way, Rachel went into childbirth, and the midwife indicated that it was a son. Rachel’s labor was extremely difficult, and ultimately proved fatal. Pasuk 35:18 records that in her last dying breath, Rachel named her son “Ben Oni,” but that “his father” (i.e., Yaakov) called him “Binyamin.”
The narrative is somewhat difficult. We know that Yaakov loved Rachel the most of any of his wives. It must have been terrible for him to watch her die. Yet, after Rachel selects a name for her son in her last dying moments, Yaakov changes the name to something else. What was Yaakov’s intent in changing the name? If we look back at the pesukim recording the naming of Yaakov’s eleven sons, we see that – with the sole exception of Levi - Rachel and Leah selected the names (and even with respect to Levi, it was Leah who supplied the explanation) (see: 29:32; 29:33; 29:34; 29:35; 30:6; 30:8; 30:11; 30:12; 30:18; 30:20; and 30:24).
Ramban differs and suggests that by calling her new son “ben oni” Rachel intended to refer to him as the son of my “mourning” (citing Hoshea 9:4 and Devarim 26:14 where the term “oni” means mourning). Rachel’s name thus connotes sadness and pessimism. However, having heard the name selected by Rachel, Yaakov elected to interpret “oni” in a positive vein to mean strength (see Bereshit 49:3 and Yeshaya 40:29), and therefore changed the name to “Ben Yamin” since “Yamin” (alluding to the “right hand”) unambiguously connotes strength (whereas “oni” can be interpreted either negatively (mourning) or positively (strength)). Thus, Ramban has Yaakov accepting the name selected by Rachel (i.e., “oni”), but changing it to something else that captures the positive connotation of “oni.”
Unlike Ramban, Malbim believes that Rachel used “oni” to refer to her “strength” with the intent being that this child came into being by taking her strength. Yaakov echoes the sentiment by choosing a different name that also connotes strength. But if this is correct, why didn’t Yaakov simply stick with “Ben Oni?” Perhaps, as Ramban suggests, “oni” is ambiguous in its meaning, whereas “yamin” unambiguously connotes strength.
In my humble opinion, I’d like to suggest a fourth alternative that combines elements of the approaches advocated by Ramban and Malbim. One must first recall the episode of Yaakov’s hasty departure from Lavan. Prior to fleeing with Yaakov, Rachel had stolen Lavan’s “terafim” (idols) (31:19). Upon learning of their departure, Lavan chased Yaakov and accused him of “stealing his gods.” (31:30). Yaakov reacts angrily, and impulsively responds, “with whomever your gods are, shall not live.” (31:32). Rashi states flatly that this curse caused Rachel to die in childbirth on the way to Efrat. Indeed, the Torah relates parenthetically that Yaakov was unaware that Rachel had stolen the terafim, which suggests some criticism of Yaakov for reacting too impulsively; clearly, he would not have uttered such a curse had he known that Rachel stole the terafim (one is reminded of the impulsive statement of Yiftach and the consequences it wreaked on his daughter). In any event, Lavan searches for the “terafim,” but cannot find them since Rachel is sitting on them and declines to rise.
If we then fast forward to Yaakov’s departure from Shechem for Beit El, prior to leaving, Yaakov asked his wives to turn over all of their foreign gods (35:2), and they complied by turning over “all” of the gods in their possession (35:4). It seems probable that, at this point, the fact that Rachel had stolen Lavan’s “terafim” finally came to light. If so, one wonders how Yaakov might have reacted knowing that he had cursed the individual who stole the idols. Clearly, both Yaakov and Rachel must have felt tremendous anxiety at that moment, but given their intense faith in Hashem, likely became resigned to leave Rachel’s fate in Hashem’s hands.
So imagine now Rachel goes into childbirth, and it becomes clear she will die. Husband and wife must have endured a tremendous rush of emotions as they looked into each other eyes knowing that Yaakov’s curse was coming true. Imagine the tremendous guilt that Yaakov must have felt – knowing with certainty that he condemned the most beloved of his wives to a premature death due to a single impulsive comment. How tragic!
What might Rachel have felt at this moment? One can imagine she felt anger towards Yaakov for his impulsive statement upon realizing that, indeed, the curse was coming true. Or perhaps not. Instead, Rachel might have felt pride at her act of self-sacrifice – ultimately tracing her death to the sacred act of removing the idolatrous “terafim” from her father’s house, which were eventually buried, never to be worshipped again. Essentially, Rachel sacrificed her life in the battle against idolatry. This sacrifice has been undertaken repeatedly throughout subsequent generations by countless Jews who willingly choose death rather than submit to idolatry. Perhaps this passionate commitment to eradicating idolatry – going so far as to even sacrifice one’s life for the cause - is a legacy from Rachel. In any event, one can imagine that, at the moment when it became clear that Yaakov’s curse was coming true, Rachel did not feel anger at all, but instead a sense of nobility and strength that she was giving up her life for a most worthy cause – the recognition of Hashem as the one true G-d. Indeed, we already saw Leah and Rachel’s commitment to the hashkafah of total faith in Hashem when, in response to Yaakov’s conveyance of Hashem’s instruction to return to Eretz Yisroel, they stated with conviction, “whatever Hashem has commanded, you should do.” (Bereshit 31:16). This ingrained attitude might have certainly endowed Rachel with the strength to accept her fate with perfect faith in Hashem’s righteousness.
So if we return to the moment of Rachel’s difficult childbirth, one can imagine Yaakov feeling tremendous guilt and pain. But if he and Rachel were so truly connected in life – sharing the strongest love possible between husband and wife and building a life together based on shared values – one can also imagine Rachel sensing Yaakov’s anguish, and if we adopt the interpretation of “oni” as referring to “strength,” reassuring Yaakov with the single phrase “ben oni” as follows:
“Please, don’t be sad, my dear husband. I know you feel terrible, but can you see instead that this son is a sign of my strength – my willingness to sacrifice my life to eradicate idolatry and ensure recognition of Hashem as the one and only G-d in the world? Yaakov, this is meant to be, and I accept the sacrifice willingly.”
Such a message would have reassured Yaakov in his moment of despair, and with this reassurance, he gave their son a name that connoted strength.
This interpretation might explain why Yaakov is referred to in 35:18 as “aviv” (his father) rather than “Yaakov.” The use of the term “father” more directly connects Yaakov to the “mother”, which is Rachel, which suggests that Binyamin represents a product of their shared values.
One might also understand the mystery of why Yaakov is not recorded as crying after Rachel’s death when he cried upon meeting her (29:11). Perhaps the reassurance that Rachel had given him at her death gave Yaakov closure, and removed the sense of despair and anguish he felt and replaced it with memories of the deep bond they had shared in life. In which case, the mourning would certainly have been more private, rather than a public display of grief (such as when Yaakov mourned the loss of Yosef where there was no closure).
To be sure, one possible flaw in the proposed interpretation arises from the prior namings of Yaakov’s other sons. The pattern in all of those cases is that an explanation is given, and then an appropriate name is selected that matches the explanation -- signified by the phrase “v’tikrah” when the name is assigned to the child.
Here, the pasuk says, “vatikrah shemo,” indicating that Rachel was giving her new son a name, rather than providing an explanation to Yaakov based on which he could choose an appropriate name. However, it could be that rather than intending a permanent name, Rachel’s selection of the name “oni” might have been intended as a message for Yaakov as proposed above, i.e., “Yaakov, this child’s name should be one of strength since he is a symbol of my strength – my willingness to sacrifice my life for Hashem.” Indeed, the fact that “oni” can also mean “pain” is significant since we then have “pain” and “strength” mixed together. There is no doubt that Rachel was in pain, but it was a “pain” in which she found strength because it demonstrated the depth of her commitment (much as Rabbi Akiva rejoiced in his opportunity to give his life al pi Kiddush Hashem, thus fulfilling the verse “to love hashem with all of your soul”). And Yaakov – so connected as he was to Rachel -- understood the message and selected a name permanently and unambiguously signifying strength. When the pain was gone, what remained was a symbol of strength.
Because the description of the episode is so brief, we can never know for sure what exactly transpired. But given the prior history between Yaakov and Rachel, and the interactions with Lavan, it is certainly not inconceivable that, while the episode remains tragic, there is also at least a sense of beautiful unspoken communication between husband and wife – that of a husband feeling he has let his beloved wife down, and with just two words packed with meaning the wife reassuring him that this is not the case at all, but instead she forgives him, and only feels pride in their shared values as expressed through the name of their child. In which case, the episode can inspire us towards greatness in communication, forgiveness and commitment to shared Torah values.