Does your name define you? Do you know what your name means? Would you consider it a goal to live up to the meaning of your name? My English name is Stacey, the meaning of which is not fit to print in a Jewish magazine. Suffice it to say, I discovered the meaning during an Ancient Greek grammar class in which the professor introduced us to the Greek terminology of certain key concepts of a western religion that split off from Judaism around the beginning of the common era. My Hebrew name is Zesil Nechama, sweet comfort. This is my challenge, my goal: how can I live up to this name? Sometimes it is much easier to be Stacey.

Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, had three names. Many people are familiar with her pre-Isaac name of Sarai. Both Sarai and Sarah mean princess. G‑d changed Sarah and Abraham’s names, adding the Hebrew letter “hey” to both of them, as part of their spiritual renewal in becoming the parents of the Jewish people. How can I live up to this name? Most people are unaware of Sarah’s third name, Yiscah. Among the lists of genealogies at the end of the Torah portion of Noah, which we read two weeks ago, we are first introduced to Sarah, known then as Sarai. The Torah tells us, “And Avram and [his brother] Nahor took for themselves wives. The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai, and the Name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; the daughter of Haran: father of Milkah, and father of Yiscah” (11:29). By virtue of literary chiasm, it appears that Sarai is equivalent to Yiscah! (The name Yiscah was first transposed into English by Shakespeare in "The Merchant of Venice" as the character Jessica.) The Rabbis ask, why is she called Yiscah, a name which appears only one time in the entire Bible? Their answer is based on the etymological definition of her name. The name Yiscah has within it the Hebrew letters which mean "to see" or "view." The Rabbis tell us Sarah saw with the aid of Divine Inspiration; she was a prophetess, the first female prophet in the Torah.

Even though we learned two weeks ago that Sarah was a prophetess, we don’t see her prophecy in action until this week, in the portion of Vayeira. After Sarah births and weans Isaac, she is disturbed by what she sees in his interactions with Ishmael, the son of her handmaid Hagar who she gave to Abraham before she was able to conceive. She tells Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael must be expelled from the household. This is understandably very difficult for Abraham; how can he abandon his concubine and firstborn son? G‑d intervenes and says to Abraham, “Do not consider this wrong in your eyes on account of the boy and your slave-woman. Regarding all that Sarah tells you, listen to her, for [only] through Isaac will seed be considered yours” (21:12). G‑d’s endorsement of Sarah’s words show that she was not simply a mother concerned for her own, individual child. Rather, she was a prophetess concerned for the future of the Jewish people!

The Maharal of Prague (16th century Jewish philosopher) formulates an astounding question on the use of Sarah’s name in these two passages. He asks if it would not have made more sense for the name Yiscah, which implies prophecy, to have been used in the above passage rather than in the list of genealogies. Wouldn’t this have made more sense both in terms of giving a clearer understanding to the first sentence and also strengthening the prophetic stance of this sentence?

Sarah had her own unique relationship with G‑d

The Maharal resolves this issue with an amazing insight into the character of Sarah and the significance of her names. The Torah is actually giving us a very important message about our spiritual ancestors in choosing these names. By using the name Yiscah so early on in the genealogies while referring to her as the daughter of Haran - unrelated to her role as wife to Abraham - the Torah is telling us that Sarah had her own unique relationship with G‑d independent of Abraham’s connection to the Almighty. She was a prophetess in her own right while still known simply as the daughter of Haran, before she was the wife of Abraham! Abraham (which means "father of a great nation") and Yiscah/Sarah ("Prophetic Princess") were two individual seekers of G‑d in a world of idolaters. They met as equal spiritual powers who united in such a way as to cause a spiritual monotheistic revolution felt throughout the entire world and reaching countless generations of humankind.

As we continue to benefit from Sarah’s contributions as the prophetic princess, we can be grateful that she was able to live up to her name. It gives me “sweet comfort” to know that my name does not have such lofty, far reaching goals. I simply need to relate to those in my immediate surroundings. Through Sarah’s inspiration, may we all strive to live up to our names.