The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” has a long religious history. First documented in the church (though likely much older than the church itself) as describing the foundation of scholarship each generation has, it depicts the individual as a “dwarf” – small and individually limited, but able to see great distances and visions by their presence on the giant’s shoulder. This philosophy also applies within our Jewish tradition. Our scholars of blessed memory, often referred to as chazal (חז”ל) in Hebrew, have conversations and debates throughout the generations. A question asked by a 2nd-century rabbi is lifted up by our teachers today. A conclusion reached by an early Torah commentator is expanded and adapted generations later. Our tradition today stands on their shoulders.

A common practice in Judaism to honor those giants is to quote them by name: “b’shem ohm-ro/b’shmah ohm-rah,” we say, “in the name of so-and-so we learn…” It’s an important piece of how we learn the wisdom of our ancestors as well as keep their memory alive with us today. If we were to use their work and efforts without attribution, we would dishonor their contribution and thus dilute the power of our inherited tradition.

Knowing this tradition can bring a moment of disconnect with our Torah portion this week, Toldot. While the Torah often invokes the names of generations past in describing the relationship between God and the Israelites (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), it does not often name the others who had a hand in perpetuating that blessing. For example, this week we continue hearing the story of Isaac, now newly wed and awaiting the prophesied birth of his twin sons, Esau and Jacob. He and his wife, Rebecca, live in the land of Canaan alongside the Philistine kingdom. The Torah describes Isaac as having amassed great wealth. So much so that the Philistine ruler becomes nervous of his family’s wealth and strength. To drive Isaac and his camp from the land “the Philistines stopped up all the wells which [Isaac’s] father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.” (Genesis 26:15) And so Isaac, Rebecca, and their whole camp pack up and leave.

Isaac, though a relatively passive member of the Abrahamic lineage in comparison to his father and son, becomes an important pivot point for the wellbeing of his family. His wealth becomes a point of contention for his sons as well as a physical manifestation for the divine blessing passed from father to son throughout the Torah. Yet, the way that Isaac became so wealthy is only vaguely mentioned. Isaac was able to prosper because he had access to important natural resources, primarily water through the wells that he had inherited from his father. But it was not Abraham himself who dug those wells – it was his servants who remain unnamed in the text. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants stand on the shoulders of giants, but we might never know who those giants were.

Why is it that our tradition invokes the names of the giants directly connected to us, but leaves the “peripheral giants” or even the “subjugated giants” unnamed and obscure? Perhaps in our inconsistent tradition we have become more like the Philistines than we thought. Perhaps in knowing the power of a name, we fear that naming everyone will threaten the power of a single name. We would go from “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” to a list of giants longer than we could imagine, leaving the patriarchs to get lost in a sea of memory. Or maybe we worry that asserting our ancestors’ ownership of people as property we dilute the sanctity and distinctiveness of our inherited tradition. If our ancestors had the same practice of servitude and slavery as everyone else, can we really believe ourselves to be special by comparison?

Even today with our secular national system of beliefs we struggle with this same question. For centuries and generations, the privileged and powerful have let the names of those who have built our country become lost to history. Names of slaves abducted from their homeland and forced to build wealth for their white masters. Names of indigenous people forcibly removed from their ancestral land and spurned by promises left unfulfilled. Generations of victims of physical, economic, and bigoted violence that are at risk of having their memory and contribution erased from our communal narrative.

Of course, these injustices are not new, nor is the practice of ignoring (or worse denying) their presence through omission. There have been consistent efforts to bring the difficult and painful parts of our history to light, to balance injustice with justice beginning with saying the names of the victims. Even in our Jewish tradition, we are given a system for the first steps in this process: Eliezer.

One of Abraham’s unnamed servants had a crucial role in ensuring the propagation of God’s blessing. Last week, in Parashat Chayei Sarah, this servant was sent to find a wife for Isaac, someone to quite literally give birth to the next stage of the covenant. This servant went out according to Abraham’s instructions and found Rebecca, whom Isaac loved. Our Torah never names this servant, but in the midrash our sages give him a name, Eliezer, meaning God is my help. Perhaps they chose this name because of how he knew Rebecca was “the one,” asking for a sign of compassion from Rebecca that she performed without hesitation. As if Rebecca had a bright flashing arrow over her from God saying, “choose her!” But maybe our sages saw something else in Eliezer – not only did God help him fulfill his mission, but Eliezer also helped God fulfill God’s mission. Without Eliezer’s effort and wisdom, Isaac and Rebecca might have never found each other, or had Esau and Jacob. Without Eliezer’s influence, the covenant made with Abraham might have stopped with Isaac. Eliezer – the helped and the helper of God.

We have so much work to do, righting the wrongs of our ancestors – imperfect giants on whose shoulders we stand. Thankfully, our tradition gives us our first step in that process. We often look out and see new possibilities and futures in the systems and traditions that we have inherited. We also need to look down, to recognize, affirm, and lift up the shoulders of the forgotten giants they themselves stand. This privileged pedestal on which we stand is large enough for us all, we need not fear our own fall by welcoming others to the platform. Let us use our position to raise up their names and impact. B’shem ohm-rim, by their names we continue to learn.