Vayishlach: You name it

Something very strange happens at the juncture of last week’s parsha (Vayetze) and this week’s (Vayishlach). In the last verse of Veyetze (Genesis 32:3), Jacob saw angels and said, “This is the camp of God” – and he named the place Machanayim, which means “two camps.”

Five verses later, Jacob is nervous in approaching his brother Esau’s well-armed party, and he fears his family and their entourage will be wiped out. So what does he do? He divides his family into two camps.

Huh? Isn’t that backwards?

During the only moment in the Torah when someone divides his camp into two, it just happens to take place at “Two Camps?” Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jacob to divide his camp into two; and only then to dub the place Machanayim?

After I asked most every rabbi I know and searched tens of thousands of Hebrew books online, I can confidently say this puzzling quirk of the text has gotten very little attention among scholars. I could find only two attempts to explain the unusual timing of the naming of Machanayim: one by the Mittleler Rebbe (who led Chabad in the early 19th century); and one by Rabbi Shmuel Tuvia Stern, a 20th century American religious scholar.

The Mitteler Rebbe gave a Kabbalistic interpretation, explaining that one camp represented Tohu (chaos) and the other Tikkun (Repair). And Rabbi Stern suggested that each of the camps of angels in Vayetze guarded one of the two camps in Jacob’s procession in Vayishlach.

Personally, I think the episode underscores the importance of naming things with care. There were periods in Jewish history when the name Ishmael was a popular name for boys – most famously the 2nd century Tanna Rabbi Yishmael. Today, nobody in his right mind would name his son Ishmael – it would be like naming him Adolf. But in the contexts of various eras, names can have vastly different connotations: traditionally, Ishmael is said to have repented later in life, and is thus worthy of emulation as a hero to the people Israel. In the opposite direction, notable Jews before the Holocaust included Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, and Adolph (later Harpo) Marx.

The Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi traveling on a lengthy journey, when they stop at an inn. Rabbi Meir had a custom of checking the name of each innkeeper before agreeing to stay there. The other rabbis weren’t so inclined. At one lodging place they met the owner whose name was Kidor. Rabbi Meir concluded the innkeeper could not be trusted, since the name reminded him of a verse in Deuteronomy (32:30) that spoke of a wicked generation.

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi did trust Kidor, and turned over their moneybags to him, while Rabbi Meir hid his in a graveyard. The next day, Kidor denied he ever had their belongings, and Rabbi Meir was able to tell his colleagues the Aramaic equivalent of “I told you so.”

Rabbi Chaim Vital (the chief disciple of Kabbalist par excellence Rabbi Isaac Luria) wrote in the 17th century that the name a baby’s parents give him at his bris is written in Heaven, because names don’t just come about by accident. God arranges to put the baby’s name in the mouths of his mother and father.

Clearly, in our tradition names affect our behavior – if not mystically, then by shaping the way we think and therefore act.

So Jacob’s splitting his group into two camps in a place already called Machanayim teaches us to be very attentive when we name something. Jacob encountered two camps of angels and called the place Machanayim, and that name later became a key resource for himself when he had to get out of severe danger. I can imagine him thinking, “What am I going to do to escape Esau’s wrath?” and then being inspired by the name of the place he was in – which he himself had invented.

For Jews, in perilous times like these, the names we give our children and institutions may seem like minor details. But words create their own realities. Marketers think carefully, creatively, and extensively to choose precisely the perfect word or phrase for their products. As we design our own contributions to the Jewish and wider worlds, shouldn’t we do the same?

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About the Author
David Benkof is a St. Louis-based writer and former faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem. He has a master's degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. Follow him on Facebook or E-mail him at
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