Haftarat Naso: What's your name?

Both Jacob and Manoach asked for the name of the angel who appeared to them - but how different their questions were from each other.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 08:30

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The Haftorah of Naso takes up the story Shimshon’s birth, heralded by an angel to Manoach and his wife. Our first encounter with Manoach has him excluded from the prophecy. The angel’s initial message concerning a future son is given to his wife alone. Upon finding out from his wife what had taken place, as well as the reality his son would be a Nazir, he beseeches God for a further “clarification” of how to raise his son. God responds through the angel, but the angel again appears only to Manoach’s wife. Eventually, Manoach is brought into the discussion, and he engages with the angel.

Manoach is unsure whether the individual he is speaking to is an angel or prophet. He begins to explore (Shoftim 13:15-16):

“And Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, "Let us take you in now, and prepare for you a kid goat." And the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, "If you take me in I will not eat of your bread, and if you will make a burnt-offering, you must offer it to the Lord;" For Manoah did not know that he was an angel of the Lord.”

Upon clarification, a bizarre exchange now takes place between Manoach and the angel (ibid 17-18):

“And Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘What is your name, that when your word will come we may do you honor.’ And the angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why do you presently ask for my name; since it is hidden (phelli).’ ”

Manoach proceeds to offer a sacrifice and the angel ascends in the flames. There are no more appearances by this angel, thus leading Manoach to conclude that “he” must have been an angel.

The exchange between the angel and Manoach may sound familiar, as we see nearly identical language used with the story of Yaakov (Jacob) and the angel as they wrestled through the night. There, the angel first asks Yaakov his name; once given, he proceeds to change it, reflecting a shift in the leadership role Yaakov was to now play. Yaakov, though, was not done (Bereishit 32:30):

“And Jacob asked and said, "Now tell me your name," and he said, "Why is it that you ask for my name?" And he blessed him there.”

On the surface, the queries and responses in the two stories seem quite similar, yet there are some critical differences between them. First, Manoach offers a rationale for wanting to know the name of the angel. If the predictions come true, then Manoach would want to honor him. Yaakov’s request lacks this caveat. The other variance is in the response by the angel. With Yaakov, the angel leaves the question unanswered. In the case of Manoach, he replies cryptically, his name being “hidden”.

Rashi’s interpretations of the two responses reflect this subtlety. In the incident with Yaakov, he explains the angel’s response:

“We have no permanent name. Our names change, (all) according to the service we are commanded [to do] in the mission upon which we are sent.”

With Manoach, Rashi offers something slightly different:

“Hidden. It is constantly changed and it is not known to what it was changed today.”

We can observe how Rashi’s emphasis by Yaakov is the transient nature of the angel’s name, while with Manoach the focus is on the name being concealed.

The two incidents may help highlight a profound difference in how Yaakov and Manoach approached learning about God and His relationship with humanity. The idea of a name is quite simple to understand. Names serve to identify someone or something. A name brings with it a sense of familiarity, a clearer knowledge of that which is being acknowledged. In the realm of the metaphysical, names go beyond mere utility; they serve as vehicles to various ideas and concepts. We see this, for example, in the various “names” attributed to God. Each reveals a deep insight in God’s actions, relationship to humanity, control, among others.

Yaakov, when confronted with the angel, sees the angel as a conduit to God. As God’s messenger, the angel reflects the concept of hashgacha, Divine Providence, and clearly indicates God’s investment in our fate. Yaakov saw the incident with the angel as an opportunity to obtain more insight into the mechanisms of hashgacha. His desire to know the name of the angel was not motivated by any practical reasoning. The name of the angel would be the opportunity for a profounder understanding of God. The angel responds with a focus on transiency. The implication is that Yaakov, at this time, was unable to comprehend God’s plans in regards to His intervention. While we  draw patterns through our understanding of cause and effect, becoming more predictive, hashgacha operates on a different plane. The angel’s response to Yaakov is the knowledge is not attainable to him right now. Yaakov is silent.

Manoach’s query reveals something quite different. In requesting to know the name of the angel, he too was seeking knowledge. However, his desire is offset by wanting to give honor to the angel. Manoach appears to be projecting human sensibility onto the angel. He sees the angel through the lens of humanity and assumes the angel would want to be honored; he is drawing the angel down to humanity. If the situation were reversed, Manoach would seek the same accolades. In trying to understand Divine Providence, Manoach sees the angel as a reflection of himself. Once this viewpoint is clear, the angel can only offer one answer. Due to Manoach’s distorted understanding, the nature of this knowledge is closed off to him. In this instance, the idea of being hidden is points to the inability of the individual to even begin understanding God. The flawed approach to comprehending God, where we try and seek to identify with Him, means any knowledge of Him will be closed off. Manoach is silent, then offers a sacrifice.

The two responses are important concepts when it comes to the category of yediyat Hashem, the pursuit of knowing God. A struggle has been present within the Jewish people for eons, where internalizing that God is qualitatively removed from us means understanding Him in a meaningful way is of the greatest challenge. When we assume God would “think like us”, we are presented with a serious metaphysical misrepresentation with untold theological consequences.

Manoach does not reply to the angel, possibly accepting the indirect rebuke. Yaakov entered into the conversation with the correct approach and thirsted for every opportunity to discover anything more he could about God. In this instance, Yaakov was not ready for the next level. He seems to accept the angel’s response with the same silence, acknowledging that just because we want to understand does not mean we are ready to. The reality of our intellectual limitations must be at the forefront in these areas of knowledge.

Both Manoach and Yaakov grant us fascinating intuitions into the pursuit of yediyat Hashem.

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