Ari Sacher

“Such a Lovely Name” Parashat Shelach-Korach 5784

Two of the leading villains in Korach’s revolt against Moshe are Dathan and Aviram.

            They are eventually swallowed by the earth, thus ending a long and sordid career of crime – at least according to our Sages in the Midrash. Because while the Torah explicitly mentions Dathan and Aviram only in connection of Korach’s rebellion, the two appear in the Midrash in an array of locations. Here are just a few:

  • While Moshe is still living as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace, he kills an Egyptian taskmaster who is beating a Jewish slave. The next day, he comes across [Shemot 2:13] “two Hebrew men arguing”. After he scolds them for their behaviour, they ask him if he intends on killing them just like he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. Moshe immediately understands that they have ratted on him to the Egyptian authorities and as a result he must run for his life to Midian. According to our Sages in the Midrash, these two cantankerous scoundrels were none other than Dathan and Aviram.
  • Before the manna begins to fall, Moshe warns the Jewish People to trust in G-d and not to save any leftover manna for the next day. Nevertheless [Shemot 16:20] “some men” still left over from their daily portion of manna. Who were these men? You guessed it. The Midrash identifies them as Dathan and Aviram.

The Midrash clearly has a bone to pick with Dathan and Aviram, going so far as to say that whenever a group of unidentified people in the Torah are argumentative, and there are many such examples, the Midrash identifies these people as Dathan and Aviram. This begs a question: The Hebrew name “Aviram” means “My Father [in heaven] is exalted”. How can a person grow up with such a lovely name and still end up on the FBI’s most-wanted list?

The previous Portion of Shelach contains a counter-example. Moshe sends spies to scout out the Land of Israel in preparation for its capture. He chooses twelve men, one from each tribe. Many of the spies have bizarre names: Nachbi the son of Vofsi, Setur (“destroy”) the son of Michael, Gadi (“goat”) the son of Susi (“horse”). Our Sages in the Midrash [Bemidbar Rabbah 16:10] note this and elaborate: “There are people whose names are pleasant but their actions are repulsive; people whose names are repulsive but their actions are pleasant; people whose names are pleasant and their actions are pleasant; and people whose names and their actions are repulsive… As for people whose names are repulsive and their actions are repulsive, these are the spies [that Moshe sent]: What is written in their regard? ‘Setur’ – [G-d] eliminated him (she’setaro) from the world.” As opposed to “Aviram”, the names of the spies were much more in line with their evil personalities and their destinies. What, if any, is the relationship of a person’s name to his present and to his future?

According to the esoteric Torah, a person’s name is more than just something that his friends call him. During one of my wife’s pregnancies, she felt a large amount of angst. When the baby was born safe and sound, we wanted to give her a name that symbolized our gratitude to G-d for listening to our prayers. We narrowed the list down to two names but as much as we tried, we could not decide between the two. One hour before we had to come up with our best and final, I went to see our neighbour, a Rabbi who just so happened to dabble in the esoteric Torah. I told him about our indecision and he replied, “Your baby already has a name, you just don’t know what it is”. While his advice admittedly did not help us choose the name, he was teaching me something of critical importance: A person’s name is an expression of his persona. When parents name their child, they are, in some small way, engaging in prophecy. The child’s name will guide him for his entire life. One such example is our forefather, Jacob, which means “heel” – the lowest part of the body. Jacob was a person who got what he needed to survive by using whatever means necessary. He tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and his father’s blessing and he tricked his father-in-law, Laban, out of his wealth. Had Jacob had a more benign name, the future of the Jewish People might very well have turned out very differently. Jacob’s name had prepared him for his destiny.

It turns out that my neighbour’s advice had a firm scientific basis. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology[1], researchers from the University of Utah took an analytical look at the theory of nominative determinism, a longstanding concept positing that a person’s name has an uncanny influence over his career and life. They found that a statistically significant number of people chose careers and cities in which to live that began with the first letter of their name (“David the doctor who lives in Denver”). Israeli researchers[2] have shown that people even look like their names. When asked to guess which of a handful of names corresponded to a photograph of a person’s face, humans and computers were able to do so at rates above chance. There is a game I play with one of my Anglo coworkers in which we give English names to our Israeli coworkers. Strangely, we often suggest the same names: “Aviram” is totally “Cameron” and an American “Alon” would so be named “Robert”. Interestingly, the Israeli research indicated that this might have been a self-fulfilling prophecy: The facial features that led observers to correctly associate portraits with names were controllable. For example, short-tempered people were found to tense specific facial muscles more than relaxed people, leading in turn to a particular development of the jaw. In other words, humans tend to subconsciously make themselves appear in a way that their names might indicate they should appear.

The obvious question is why would Moshe choose people whose names revealed potentially harmful traits to fulfill such a critical mission? Indeed, the spies failed miserably as they were destined to do, dooming the Jewish People to forty years of wandering in the desert.

Our solution begins with a comment made by Rabbi Enoch Zundel ben Joseph[3], writing in the “Etz Yossef” a gloss on Midrashic sections of the Talmud and on the Midrash, itself. Regarding the “people whose names are pleasant/repulsive but their actions are repulsive/pleasant”, Rabbi Enoch writes, “One’s name dictates whether a person’s character traits are good or bad. Nevertheless, man, by means of his freedom of choice, can still change his nature and background for the better”. A person’s name gives him certain initial conditions, biasing his character in certain way. Man’s mission is to overcome his biases and not to surrender to them[4]. Moshe felt that the spies he chose were capable of overcoming their own character weaknesses and of blazing a path into the Land of Israel.

We can take this idea one step further. While a person’s name is indicative of his persona and his identity, many names have multiple meanings. Consider the names “Setur (‘Destroy’) the son of Michael (‘Who is like G-d?’)” and “Yigal (‘[G-d] will redeem’) the son of Joseph [who [Bereishit 37:2] brought evil reports about his brothers to his father]”. Now consider the “lovely name” of “Aviram” that is also reminiscent of the G-d’s warning [Devarim 8:14] “Beware lest your heart grow haughty (v’ram levavecha) and you forget your G-d”. This “ram” is far more indicative of Aviram’s personality than the “ram” referring to exalting G-d. A person’s name does not reveal a character trait that must be managed or a preordained destiny. Rather, it reveals a multitude of paths and we are free to choose which path we take. It is our choice alone that will determine who we are and who we will become.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Shlomo ben Esther, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel



[3] Rabbi Enoch Zundel ben Joseph lived in Poland in the first half of the 19th century.

[4] The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] asserts that a person born when the red planet Mars dominates the night sky will become either a murderer or a doctor. Both professions involve red blood, but while a doctor gives life, the murderer takes life. A person is born with certain tendencies, but he alone chooses how they will affect his life.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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