Many people know of the story where our Patriarch Jacob gets the name Israel, but allow me to share it again here. In Genesis Chapter 32, on his way to meet his brother Esau, Jacob wrestles a mysterious being throughout the night. At the end of this struggle, Jacob demands a blessing. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel,” the being says to him, “for you have striven with beings divine and with humans, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29, JPS Translation). The root of the word “striven” which in Hebrew is שרית sah-ri-tah makes up the “isra” part of Israel. I decided to look up this root word to find other possible interpretations beyond striving to try to add to my understanding of this verse.
But those extra meanings were not what caught my eye. The root for this verb stunned me. The verb at the core of the name Israel is שרה sin, reish, heh. That is also how you spell the name Sarah. It’s exactly how you spell the name Sarah.
Other people who have learned Biblical Hebrew as adults might have had the experience of jumping to the idea that any and all words in Hebrew are connected. Some letters sound the same, some words simply have the same poetry to them. But having identical spellings is too close to be a coincidence. I looked and looked, and no one was able to give me a good reason why these weren’t connected. More upsettingly, no one was able to tell me why this connection isn’t already in our tradition. Which gave me permission to dive right in.
Traditionally, Sarah’s name is understood as a feminized version of the noun שר (sin-reish), pronounced sar. Sar means chieftain, ruler, military leader, official, or prince. If you wanted to make it a female noun you would add the heh, and you would get Sarah meaning princess or noble lady. When her name changes in Genesis 17 from Sarai, which could mean “my princess” to Sarah, Rashi (11th century Commentator) interprets her new name to symbolize her becoming the princess to all people. This name is clearly fitting to the first mother of the Jewish people, and alongside The Father Of Many, Abraham. But that doesn’t mean this other verb Sarah, to strive, doesn’t also make sense alongside this interpretation.
Nouns in Hebrew often come from verb roots. Most believe that this word Sar comes from the root שרר (sin-reish-reish) pronounced sarar, which means “to rule over.” It’s possible, I learned also from my dictionary, that the verbs sarar, to rule over, and sarah, to persevere, are close enough in meaning and spelling to actually connected verbs. The idea that to rule over people, to become a ruler, might require perseverance and persistence in battle or in politics is exactly the kind of drash I would expect to hear from my Biblical Hebrew teachers.
I have tried to poke holes in my own argument, too. The best argument I can come up with for why the verb and her name are incidental connections is that sarah spelled that way would be past tense, first person, masculine: “he strived.” When other ancestors' names include verbs, they often show some marker of the gender of the verb. So this would have to be the root verb, not conjugated, so simply the concept of “strive.” So let me acknowledge the possibility that this connection is not explicitly intended.
This isn’t just a fun grammatical experiment. This is a new opportunity to understand Sarah. The verb, Sarah, doesn’t just mean striving. It can also mean “to contend with”, “to persevere”, or “to persist”. Sarah lived an incredibly difficult life. She was moved to a new land by a God who did not speak to her. She was put in serious danger as she traveled, twice given to the courts of kings to save her husband. Sarah was unable to have the child she wanted to have, full of anxiety as she watched her handmaid raise a child for her. She was kept from motherhood until she was very old. And then her husband almost sacrificed that child. She barely speaks. She was complicated, and her actions were often upsetting and unkind (especially to Hagar). This verb points to Sarah perseverance and her endurance in the face of hardship in a way that “Princess” cannot. It can also imply her wrestling with what she’s done, processing her trauma over time, and contending with her own actions and the actions of those who keep hurting her. This verb allows us to see her inner work not just as a possible part of her story, but as a necessary part.
This connection also has the potential to change our relationship to the name Israel. I feel an incredible new sense of belonging when I see Sarah, a matriarch, in our communal name “Israel.” I see myself in Torah when I see our matriarchs, our mothers, and their challenges and experiences included in our people’s name. It feels like the Torah opening its doors to me and saying, “I know you’re not used to seeing yourself in here, but here you are.” I love Torah, I study it every day, I teach it and started a center to share that love. But I feel a new experience of being welcomed knowing that Torah sees the hardships Sarah and the other Biblical women wrestled with and persevered and gives a space to honor that.
That’s what I have, and I give it to you now. This inquiry and work is new, and the interpretations are open to all of us to learn together. We have so much more to learn about this connection, about our relationship to Sarah, and about our place in Torah. And so I want to send some blessings your way: May you lead the way to the secrets of Torah yet to be discovered. May you bring beautiful and more inclusive and expansive Torah into the world as you learn. May you find a beautiful reason for Sarah’s presence in the name Israel. And can you email me that drash when you’re done?