“What’s in a Name?”
(updated and revised from Shelach 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shelach, the Torah recounts the fateful saga of the twelve tribal representatives, who were sent to scout the land of Canaan, and the evil reports of 10 of the 12 returning scouts. The evil report was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” that resulted in G-d’s decree that none of the adult males of that generation would enter into the land of Israel, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, who spoke well of the land.

In Numbers 13: 1-3, the Torah asserts that each of the tribal representatives were men of great stature, כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, each was a distinguished person, and adds, כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים, רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵ־ל הֵמָּה, each one, a leader of the Jewish people. The Torah then proceeds to list the names of the 12 scouts, as well as their father’s names and their tribal affiliation. Moses charges the scouts with their mission, and they set out to explore the land of Canaan.

Why is it important that the names of these tribal leaders be recorded? Is it perhaps to secure a place of shame for the scouts in Jewish history for all eternity? In several other instances the commentators note that had the people been aware that for thousands of years the Jewish people would read the Bible’s record of their deeds, they would have surely behaved more nobly.

Jewish tradition is very keen on names. Tradition often declares that names contain the secret of an individual’s personality, and consequently each name is carefully studied and analyzed.

At first blush, the names of the scouts do not seem very unique. Numbers 13:4-15 records the scouts’ names:

Of the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur. Of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori. Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. Of the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph. Of the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun. Of the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu. Of the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi. Of the tribe of Joseph, of the tribe of Manasseh, Gadi the son of Susi. Of the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli. Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael. Of the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi. Of the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi.

Regarding these scouts, the Torah, in Numbers 13:16, concludes: אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ, these are the names of the men that Moses sent to scout the land.

It’s interesting to note that the Torah does not say that these are the “men” whom Moses sent to scout the land, but rather these are the “names of the men” that Moses sent. Apparently, the emphasis on “names” is intended to be revealing.

These names are indeed revealing when compared to the names of the 12 tribal leaders (נָשִׂיאִים –literally “princes”) who were cited in the first chapter of the Book of Numbers, who helped Moses and Aaron count the people of Israel.

In Numbers 1:5-15, the list reads:

Of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur. Of Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. Of Judah, Nachshon the son of Amminadab. Of Issacher, Nethanel the son of Zuar. Of Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon. Of the children of Joseph, of Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud. Of Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. Of Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni. Of Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai. Of Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran. Of Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel. Of Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan.”

Numbers 1:16 then concludes: These were the ones summoned by the assembly, the leaders of their father’s tribes, they are the heads of Israel’s thousands. In the very next verse, the Torah asserts that Moses and Aaron took these men “who had been designated by names”–once again placing an unusual emphasis on names.

While at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between these two sets of names, when studied carefully we do indeed find significant differences. The names of the princes in Numbers 1 are far more complex, they contain many more syllables, there are few short names, and no nicknames. The princes seem to have substantial names, for substantial people.

When the names of the tribal princes are examined closely, we find 15 references to G-d in the names of individual princes and their fathers, and all the names have profound religious meanings: Nethanel: G-d has given, Eliab: G-d is my father, Elizur: G-d is my rock, Shedeur: G-d is my light, Shelumiel: G-d is my peace, Zurishaddai: G-d is my rock, Eliasaph: May G-d give me more, Deuel: Know G-d, Elishama: G-d has heard, Gamaliel: I also have a G-d, Pedahzur: G-d has redeemed, Ammishaddai: G-d is my nation, Pagiel: I have encountered G-d.

The names of the scouts, on the other hand, are very short. Among the names of the scouts and their fathers, there are only 4 names that contain any reference to G-d: Gaddiel: G-d is my good fortune, Geuel: G-d shall redeem, Ammiel: My nation is the nation of G-d, Michael: Who is like G-d?

There are also quite a few names that refer to animals: Kalev, dog; Susi, horse, Gemali, camel; Gadi, goat.

Furthermore, upon closer inspection, we find that there are 8 scouts’ names that have “eclipsed” G-d’s name. These are names that normally include the name G-d, but G-d has been cut off and cut out. Shamua is normally Shemuel: G-d has heard, Zachur is normally Zechariah: G-d has remembered, Shafat is normally Shafatia: G-d has judged, Machi is normally Michael: who is like G-d? Gadi is normally Gadiel: G-d is my good fortune, Palti is normally Paltiel: G-d is my refuge, Raphu is normally Raphael: G-d is my healer, Gamli is normally Gamliel: I also have a G-d.

Indeed, it’s not only the absence of G-d’s names among the names of the scouts, but also the specific intention to exclude and remove G-d. Perhaps this implies that the scouts were an entirely different generation, a generation of new leaders with different values. These were not the old נָשִׂיאִים , princes, of old, who were beaten in Egypt, rather than beat their brothers. This was rather the modern, “New Age,” generation, of so-called “enlightened” or “woke” leaders, who believed that the people of Israel no longer needed to focus so much on G-d. They felt that their “macho” generation could handle everything themselves. These were Jews who, even if they may have been given religious names at birth, preferred nicknames, which excluded any references to G-d.

Is it any wonder then that these “New Age” leaders were intimidated by what they saw in the land of Israel–the large- sized people and the giant fruits? After all, these were people who had only “pygmy” faith, and consequently were in their own eyes as חֲגָבִים , as grasshoppers.

Perhaps, we now understand why Jewish tradition places so much emphasis on names. Names are revealing. Often, they reveal the past, and, at times, predict the future. How sad that our nation was fated to wander through the wilderness for 39 years, because their leaders at that time–the scouts, lacked commitment and faith.

We dare not make that mistake again. Our people must become, and remain, a people of commitment and of faith, so that we may march into the future with pride, joy and a secure knowledge of G-d.

May you be blessed.