At the end of a night-long struggle, Jacob earned a new name from his assailant—Israel, the one who prevailed over God. In return, Jacob asked: Please tell me your name. And he replied: Why do you ask my name? (Genesis 32:30).
Is the vanquished opponent’s silence his only victory? Or perhaps, as an ancient teacher supposed, had Jacob struggled with a heavenly being who had the power to name but could not be named?
Rabbi Judah the Patriarch said in the name of Abba Yose ben Dostai: One verse says: God counts all of the stars and gives names to each of them (Psalm 147:4). Another verse says: God brings out their ranks by number and gives each star a name (Isaiah 40:26). This teaches that an angel’s name changes—a name by which an angel is called now is not the name by which he will later be called. As Scripture says: The angel of the Lord said to him [Manoach]: Why do you ask my name being that it is hidden? (Judges 13:18)—meaning: I, myself, do not know to what my name will be changed.
Abba Yose was well known for teachings that arise from pairs of biblical verses that are at odds with one another. Does God give multiple names or a single name to each star?
In the midrash, angels are likened to stars in the night sky, luminous servants at the ready whom God names and renames to each new mission that the angel must accomplish before disappearing into the morning light. (Let me go, says Jacob’s vanquished foe, for dawn is breaking.) More fluid than fixed, an angel has many names, but only one name at a time.
Abba Yose illustrated his insight with the story of Samson’s birth, announced by a mysterious stranger; a story similar to that of Jacob but with some important additions: The mysterious stranger is certainly an angel who says explicitly that his name is hidden.
In both the Samson story and the story of Jacob, having accomplished his mission the angel himself had no name to give.
The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, spoke of one angel with many names whom he first met in the nighttime prayers of his childhood:
When I was a child I prayed the Shema-on-the-bed.
I remember the first line:
“The angel who redeems me from all ill”
After that I prayed no more, not on the bed
and not in the hills, not in war, neither by day nor by night.
But the angel who redeems remained with me and became
the angel who loves and the angel who loves will be the angel of death
when the time comes, but will always be that angel
Who redeems me from all ill.
Ironically, Amichai’s angel of the bed-time Shema received his name—angel who redeems me— from Jacob as that patriarch looked back on his life and forward to the future of his grandchildren who would carry his name and the names of his ancestors: May the angel who redeems me from all ill bless these young ones and may my name be invoked upon them along with the names of my ancestors, Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 48:16).
Amichai left prayer behind him, but he did not leave—neither was he left by—the angel whom he continued to name and rename according to life’s moments. Amichai imagined that at the end, as he sought the integration and integrity of his life he would realize that all angel names were really one.
Perhaps the same can be said for Jacob. At the end of his days, lying on his bed, Jacob named the angel who could not name himself. Following the example of Jacob, Jewish tradition teaches that, at the end of the day, lying in bed, we begin the bed-time Shema by naming the angel as Jacob had done.
Stories of the patriarch and the poet teach that our angels cannot name themselves. But we can name them—and therein receive our blessings.