Right in the beginning in the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), the Torah has two lists of names that one would have expected to be identical. They are two different records of the twelve tribal leaders, the first in reference to a census and the second regarding the camp’s traveling formation. Eleven of the tribal leaders are present on both the first and the second list; the leader of the tribe of Gad, however, seems to change – but in a peculiar way. In the first list the leader’s name is Elyasaf son of D’ooale (Bamidbar 1:14), and in the second it is the nearly identical name Elyasaf son of R’ooale (ibid. 2:14). Did the first leader of Gad resign and then coincidentally hand his position over to someone with the same name and father’s name except for one different letter? If, alternatively, both names really refer to the same individual, why did the first letter of his father’s name change?
Nachmanides (Ramban, 1194 – 1270) addresses this issue, and writes that both names are in essence the same (Bamidbar 2:14). He proves that in Biblical Hebrew two names can be used interchangeably for the same person as long as they are very close in meaning. This is true even when the two names are completely different in spelling and vocalization. Therefore although D’ooale and R’ooale have different spellings due to the one variant letter, the Torah uses them interchangeably since they have very similar meanings. D’ooale means “knows the Almighty” and R’ooale means “conceives the Almighty” or “thinks about the Almighty.” Both names refer to the same father of the same leader.
According to Nachmanides, people would actually call Elyasaf’s father by both names and the Torah therefore follows suit. A lingering question that remains, however, is why would the Torah actually use both names instead of using one? The above explanation resolves how the Torah can refer to the same person using two different names, but it does not address why the Torah would choose do so. What lesson does it seek to impart?
These two names address the fact that – all of our religious feelings and inspirations notwithstanding – we don’t think about the Almighty very often. Ideally, a person should be aware of the Almighty and His greatness at all times (Lutzatto, Path of the Just: Intro. and ch. 24). One lesson of the two names of Elyasaf’s father might be the idea that we need to engage ourselves in a gradual process to work toward this goal. To become a “D’ooale”, one who [deeply] “knows the Almighty,” a person must first be and become a “R’ooale” – he must first become one who “conceives the Almighty” or “thinks about the Almighty.” Habitual and extensive thought about and contemplation of the Divine fingerprints evident throughout the natural world in addition to rigorous and diligent study of the fundamentals of Judaism can give one a deeper appreciation and awareness of the Creator. But it all starts somewhere, however small. Little by little, a person can build up a deeper appreciation, awareness, and “knowledge” of God that will eventually become a consistent staple of his or her attitudes, paradigms, and Jewish weltanschauung.