The Naming of Yitzchak

Rabbi Ari Ginsberg

The naming of Yizchak Avinu is a significant event that reflects the culmination of several other occurrences depicted in both Parshas Lech Lecha and Vayera. The evolution of his name is littered with seeming inconsistencies that if left unresolved make the story quite perplexing. However, the Torah’s presentation of these events is undoubtedly deliberate to teach us valuable lessons about our patriarchs and matriarchs, as well as to encourage our own incorporation of these concepts into our lives.     

In Lech Lecha, (17:17 – 20) Avraham is told by Hashem that he and Sarah will have a son that will inherit his legacy and ultimately lead to a great nation.  His response to this news is falling to the ground and “vayitzchak”, regarding his and Sarah’s ability to procreate despite their old age. Onkelos and Rashi both interpret the word “vayitzchak” in this verse to mean, in a state of happiness and joy. In the next pasuk, Hashem informs Avraham that he will name his future son Yitzchak, and Rashi notes that this is an allusion to Avraham’s reaction to the wonderful news. In contrast, (Breishis  18: 10 – 15) Sarah overhears from the angels who had visited Avraham that she will have a son. Her reaction from a literal reading of the verse is almost identical to Avraham’s reactions. It says “Vatizchak” at the beginning of this verse, but Rashi and Onkelos translate “Vatizchak” in a negative manner. They explain (Breishis 17: 17) that “Vatizchak” means to mock, and that Sarah was unconvinced of the possibility of having a child, since she had already passed the age of potential conception. She is then admonished by Hashem through Avraham for questioning Hashem’s infinite abilities. When confronted with her flaw, she immediately denies her initial reaction, but Avraham once again forces her to admit her response of disbelief. Finally, after Avraham names Yitzchak, Sarah confirms this name (Breishis 21:6) by noting that God has given her joy, and that everyone will be happy for her. The words “Tzechok” and “Yitzachak” in this verse are universally translated as happiness. 

A number of questions emerge in analyzing these verses with Onkelos’ and Rashi’s commentaries. First, how could our matriarch, Sarah, who had already witnessed miracles, acknowledged her husband’s prophecy, and prophesized herself, question the ability of God to perform this miracle? Also, why was it necessary for the Torah to inform us of Sarah’s realization of her flaw? Additionally, what is the importance of Sarah’s affirmation of Yitzchak’s name?  Last, the Torah appears to go out of its way to express both Avraham’s and Sarah’s reactions with the same linguistic root. Why does the Torah emphasize their inconsistent responses with similar wording?


Perhaps the difference in Avraham and Sarah’s reactions was sourced in their distinct perspectives on having a child. Avraham understood that having a child with Sarah was beneficial to accomplishing his goals of spreading monotheism and being the progenitor of a nation devoted to the worship of God. As such, he always left open the possibility of having a child despite his old age, and responded to the news with the reaction of bliss and joy. However, Sarah had already concluded that it was impossible for her to have a child, because she approached the prospect of having a child from the standpoint of personal fulfillment. Therefore, her sense of happiness could not be articulated appropriately and was expressed cynically, because she had preemptively ruled out any possibility of having a child. The Torah’s portrayal of these viewpoints translates to present times as well. Many people who are engrossed in difficult situations such as losing a job, getting divorced, or having fertility problems, cannot fathom ever escaping their current situations. They have irrationally given up any hope, and are therefore cynical when they are confronted with good news. However, other people recognize how these events may be temporary, and may even fit into a broader life plan. These latter individuals are more equipped to deal with positive outcomes. The reactions of both Avraham and Sarah were rooted in happiness, but Sarah had already accepted her pregnancy as impossible. Her emotions were therefore distorted and her response was inappropriate.  

The Torah therefore teaches us through Avraham’s confrontation with Sarah, and her subsequent affirmation of Yitzchak’s name, that it was imperative that Sarah change her outlook. It was necessary for Sarah to parent Yitzchak with a proper understanding of his role in the plan that had been set out for them by Hashem. Only then could she make appropriate decisions for her son. This is seen clearly in her decision to banish Hagar and Yishmael, because of their negative influence on Yitzchak. Although personally she may have felt guilty, nevertheless, it was the correct parenting choice.

The evolution of Yitzchak’s name reflects important concepts in approaching troublesome life scenarios, as well as the philosophical level of Avraham and Sarah. Preemptive negative conclusions are often emotionally appealing, but should however be avoided.  Sarah’s ultimate transformation demonstrates that it is possible to change this hopeless attitude into a more realistic outlook.