What’s in a Name?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

An enigmatic figure in the Torah, Noach is chosen by God to be the survivor, along with his family, of the Flood that would soon destroy the rest of mankind. Of course, we find out about this in next week’s parsha, Parshas Noach. While he is described as a tzadik, we never really come across any unique features concerning Noach until he is commanded to build the ark. However, in Parshas Bereishis, we get a glimpse into the distinctive personality of this great man. 

Our first introduction to Noach, the focus in next week’s parsha, takes place at the end of Parshas Bereishis (5:28-29):

“And Lamech lived a hundred and eighty two years, and he begot a son. And he named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands from the ground, which the Lord has cursed’.”

How do we understand this unique name he was given?

Rashi elaborates:

“This one will give us rest: Heb. יְנַחִמֵנוּ He will give us rest (יָנַח מִמֶנוּ) from the toil of our hands. Before Noah came, they did not have plowshares, and he prepared [these tools] for them. And the land was producing thorns and thistles when they sowed wheat, because of the curse of the first man (Adam), but in Noah’s time, it [the curse] subsided. This is the meaning of יְנַחִמֵנוּ. If you do not explain it that way, however (but from the root (נחם), the sense of the word does not fit the name, [נֹחַ], and you would have to name him Menachem.” 

Beyond the need to clarify this obscure explanation, Rashi’s insistence that “if you do not explain it that way” should raise eyebrows. Why is he emphasizing this?

The source for Rashi’s idea comes from a Midrash (Midrash Rabba Bereishis 25:2). We see there a debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish about the meaning of Noach’s name (we will focus on the position of Rabbi Yochanan in this article). Rabbi Yochanan explains that “the midrash is not the name, and the name is not the midrash”. In other words, the reason offered by the Torah for Noach’s name does not actually reflect the name itself. The name Noach carries with it the meaning “yenicheinu”, which would mean, loosely translated, bringing rest. Yet the Torah, when explaining the meaning of Noach’s name, says “yinachameinu”, which implies bringing comfort. If indeed this is the explanation, Rabbi Yochanan states, then Noach’s name should have been Nachman (or as Rashi says Menachem). Of course, this was not the case. Thus, we are left trying to understand how the meaning of the literal translation of the name lines up with the Torah’s understanding of the name.

Rabbi Yochanan offers a strange explanation. When God created man, He created a unique relationship between man and the world. The cow would respond to the will of man, and the ground (through planting) would accede to his rule.  After man’s sin, “they” rebelled against mankind. The cow no longer responded to man, and the ground refused to be plowed. When Noach came along, “they” rested. The implication here is that Noach was able to solve this conundrum. 

Looking at this Midrash, we can see how Rashi is able to conclude Noach introduced agricultural tools to help solve this crisis. The notion of “resting” needs some type of context which is why there is mention of Noach’s invention of a more efficient means of plowing the land.  We can also see why Rashi ends his explanation emphasizing that there is a problem with how Noach’s name corresponds with the Torah’s “meaning”. However, we still must explain the idea that Rashi and the Midrash are attempting to convey.

The Midrash states that at first, God created the natural world in a way that it conformed to man. Man, as we know, was defined at inception as the being qualitatively differentiated from all other species on the planet. The tzelem Elokim, the soul of man, would place him in a position completely separate from any other. This reality was reflected in how the natural world conformed to his needs. The animal kingdom, as it existed to serve man, functioned accordingly. And the ground itself, from where man’s nutritional needs would emerge, would also exist in line with man’s needs. In this utopian pre-sin world, the delineation between mankind and everything else was clear. 

Everything changed with the sin, and this was reflected in how the natural world would relate to man. Prior to the sin, the natural world abided by man’s wishes – it was a property of the physical world. However, once man sinned, the relationship changed, the rules were altered, and the world surrounding man was no longer at his beckoning. The animal kingdom was no longer subservient. The ground gave forth nothing of benefit. Mankind was abandoned, searching for the state of existence it once had. The delineation between mankind and the surrounding world became more difficult to define. Until Noach came along, there was no advancement in this predicament. 

We must look beyond the mere fact that Noach was an inventor, as inventing alone could not be the sole reason why he stood out from the crowd. Rather, we see in Noach a unique advancement in mankind. Noach recognized the problem, one that was not just a practical one, but one that reflected a crisis in mankind’s position. He used his creative faculties--his mind--the features given exclusively to man, to solve the problem. It was not the solution of the agricultural tools that was so great; it was Noach’s use of his mind in this situation that merited a change in the natural world. True, the surroundings would never, by law, serve man. However, if man used his mind accordingly, he would demonstrate how he was different than all else.

This can help answer the tension between the name and its meaning. Noach provided two critical solutions to mankind. The first was using his mind to solve the problem of the natural world and its “resistance” to mankind – bringing about the “rest”. And the result of this development was the psychological well-being of returning to its place of supremacy – the “comfort”. 

No doubt, this feature of Noach’s personality was pivotal in his future assignment. Presenting this idea in Parshas Bereishis helps establish the unique individual Noach was. As we turn to Parshas Noach, a clearer picture of whom Noach actually was beings to emerge. And we see this all through his unique name.