Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Avram and Sarai’s Name Change

Lech Lecha

Two of the best known Jewish names are Abraham and Sarah, in fact they are the names of the progenitors of the Jewish people.

But it was not always so. Before their names were Abraham and Sarah, they were called Avram and Sarai.

Perhaps these would be insignificant details were it not for the fact that G-d himself changed their names, as documented in the Torah. Why is it so important? What relevance does this have for us in our lives?

In this week’s reading, Lech Lecha [1], we read how G-d tells our first patriarch [2]: “Avram shall no longer be your name. Your name shall be Avraham for I have made you the father of a multitude [av hamon] of nations.

Rashi quotes the words “for a father of a multitude of nations” and says: “It is the compound of his name. And the [letter] Reish that it originally contained was because he was the father only of Aram which was his place. And now as father of the whole world, the Reish [letter] that he originally had did not move from its place. Even Sarai’s Yud complained to the Shechinah until he added it to Yehoshua’s name as it is written [3]: ‘and Moshe called Hoshea bin Nun: Yehoshua.

At first glance it is understood that what Rashi wants to explain is the reason for the permanence of the letter Reish in the new name of Avraham, since it seems to have no function. If the new name that G-d gave him is a compound of the words Av Hamon (father of a multitude), shouldn’t he be called Avham instead of Avraham?

Rashi explains that in order to avoid complaints from the letter Reish for being removed from the name of a righteous man of the stature of Avraham —as happened with the letter Yud from the name Sarai when it was changed to Sarah— it was left in place.

But it is not so simple:

1. The example Rashi brings from the letter Iud of the name Sarai being supplanted by the letter Hei and added to the name Hoshea to transform it into Yehoshua, proves the opposite, that indeed the problem can be solved by adding the removed letter to another name and it is not necessary to keep it in its original place!

2. Rashi says “even the letter Iud of the name Sarai”, implying that it had less of an argument than the letter Reish of Avram’s name (and yet it was taken seriously and resolved). Why would there be a difference between the justification of their respective arguments, if the reason for complaint was the same: having been removed from the name of a Tzaddik?

Explanation:

Rashi’s aim in his commentary here is not to explain the meanings of the name variations, but the composition of the new name, Avraham. This is where the question arises: what function does the letter Reish fulfill in a name whose implication is “father of a multitude of nations” (Av hamon)? Would it not have been more appropriate to name him Avham rather than Avraham?

Rashi explains that since the letter Resh in the name Avram implied “Av Aram”, father of his native place Aram, being that the name change implied an expansion of his previous status, rather than a denial of it, Aram was still under his influence and therefore the Resh representing it “did not move from his place”.

This was not the case with the letter Yud in Sarai’s name when it was changed to Sarah. The letter Yud was replaced by the letter Hei, because the meaning of the name written with a Yud was no longer valid when it was changed to a name ending with the letter Hei.

Sarai (ending with the letter Yud) means my princess, while Sara (ending with a Hei) means princess in general. Thus, the letter Yud, present in the name given by her father Haran, had no place in the new name and status G-d was giving her.

The mystical dimension:

According to the Chassidic teachings [4], Avram is a composite of two words, Av Ram, which means “elevated father”. That is, intellect [5] that transcends all comprehension. Avraham’s intellectual level transcended that of all others. By being transformed into “Av Hamon Goyim,” father of a multitude of nations, implying approaching and “descending” to the level of the multitudes, one might think that this would imply a descent from his very high personal level. The permanence of the letter Reish —of the word ram, “elevated”— implies that despite his occupation with educating and speaking in the language of the masses, he did not lose his elevated level, but to the contrary: he managed to transmit the highest levels of his intellectual accomplishments to the masses.

Practically speaking:

We refer to the three patriarchs, Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, as our fathers —rather than grandfathers— because we all inherit their spiritual characteristics as directly as if they were our parents. Thus, we all inherit the ability to be like Avraham “Av Hamon”, to influence the whole world. We must remember, however, that “the Resh of ‘Aram’, which was his [original] place, was not displaced. First of all, one has the duty to influence his own place and environment and only then can he move on to expand his influence to the whole world.

——————

1. Genesis 12:1-17:27
2. Genesis 17:5
3. Deuteronomy 13:16
4. See Torah Or, Lech Lecha.
5. In Kabbalistic and Chassidic terminology, the intellect —Chochmah and Binah— fulfills the function of father and mother in that they engender emotions.

This installment of the Text&Context series is based on: Likutei Sichot, Vol. 25 pages 62-69. 

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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