Who Says Names Can Never Hurt You? (1 Samuel 20:18-42)

Saul’s animosity for David knew no limits. Neither David nor Jonathan, Saul’s son, was certain how Saul would react at David’s very presence. The Rosh Hodesh meal was meant to be a test of Saul’s attitude toward David. Saul’s response to David’s absence would serve as an indicator of his true feelings toward David. When Saul noticed David’s absence, his reaction was vitriolic. He minced no words toward his son, Jonathan, for his loyalty to his friend, nor did he spare his tongue in disparaging and delegitimizing his imagined foe, David. Saul’s anger toward David made it impossible for him to even mention his name: “But on the day after the New Moon (Rosh Hodesh), the second day, David’s place was vacant. So, Saul said to his son, Jonathan, ‘Why didn’t the son of Jesse (ben Yishai) come to the meal yesterday and today?'” (Verse 27) Further on, he snaps out at Jonathan: “I know that you side with the son of Jesse – to your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness! For as long as the son of Jesse lives on earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be secure. Now have him brought to me, for he is marked for death.” (Verses 30-31)

In the following midrash, the sages picked up on the fact that Saul could not bring himself to mention David’s name and learned from this an important lesson about how human beings relate to each other: [David asked:] “How long will you turn the glory of my name into shame by continuing to call me the son of Jesse [instead of by my given name David], as when Saul said to Jonathan: ‘I know that you side with the son of Jesse – to your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness! For as long as the son of Jesse lives on earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be secure. Now have him brought to me, for he is marked for death?’ Have I no name of my own?” (Adapted and abridged from Pesikta deRav Kahana 18:1 Mandelbaum ed. p. 293)

This midrash recognizes that the first stage in delegitimizing a person is by disparaging his or her name. When someone does this to another person, others begin to question the value of that person. The longer this is done, the more vulgar the verbal abuse; the more the abused person or people have the potential to lose their personhood in the eyes of others. When people start to think of other people as perverse things instead of as people, the worst sorts of behavior towards them are possible. In our day, we have all been witness to what such delegitimization can produce.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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