November 20, 2019

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on a verse from the weekly parsha

PARSHA: VAYISHLACH, Genesis 32:27-29

“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for dawn is breaking.’ But he answered, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ Said the other, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘Jacob.’ Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’”

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the Caterpillar stares at Alice and asks, “Who … are … you?” And Alice replies, “I hardly know. At least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

Alice echoes what many of us feel daily: We think we know who we are and then life throws us a curveball — a new job or the loss of a job, a different role in the family, a birth, a death, an illness. We are faced with strange journeys and sometimes we can hardly remember who we are at all.

Think of the names or descriptive phrases that once typified your character: once single, now married with children? Once married and now single with children out of the house? Student, now boss or business owner? Retiree looking for renewed purpose? Brand new parent? Recent mourner? Our names morph with every season. Who we are is a constant question, one that often leaves us mystified and reaching toward the heavens for direction and guidance.

Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, the one who struggles with God. Perhaps the Torah is reminding us that we are like Jacob: waking up with the dawn, finding ourselves on uncharted paths, destiny unknown. And although we may struggle in determining who we are and what names are in our future, like Jacob, we know, we struggle — with God. Whatever our name, whoever we are, God is with us. We are not alone.

Rabbi Joshua Katzan
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Much contemporary spirituality seems to be driven by radical self-acceptance and listening to our “inner voice.” This is problematic because we have multiple, opposing inner voices. Is it God we’re hearing, or is it Narcissus?

Narcissus’ voice yearns to be heard and known. God’s voice urges us to hear, discover and transform — whatever the cost. One says, “Don’t you know who I am? Know me as I am!” God’s is a “listening voice” and craves to hear the hints and whispers that would guide us to becoming more refined souls, regardless of the challenges to getting there.

Jacob/Israel is the paradigm for this model of spirituality. Jacob became Israel not by radically accepting himself as he was. He prevailed because he determined that spiritual growth depended on not letting go of the challenge, of the pain and struggle to grow beyond his familiar identity. And this is our spiritual task: to be guided by the voices outside of ourselves that urge a different and more refined self to emerge, and then to grab on and not let go.

Hereafter in the Torah we hear reference to both names: Jacob and Israel. This teaches that transformation is not necessarily permanent. New growth is not as deeply rooted as our nature. Empowerment, healing and even wisdom can be fleeting. Dedicating ourselves to a path, a practice and a community whose collective voice expects us to live up to our hard-earned, renewed names is what makes us — and keeps us — Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn
Yeshivat Yavneh

Rav Sholom Schwadron, the great storyteller of Jerusalem, once shared a tale of a farm boy who had never been to the city arriving there one day. He’s excited by everything he sees: the lights, the hustle and bustle, the sounds and the cars. He’s never seen any of this. It’s amazing. All of a sudden, he notices a long line outside of a building. He decides to get in line and follow it through. The people in line start going inside, one-by-one. They pay somebody at the front who gives them a ticket and they walk into a room.

The farm boy sits down in the dark room, where everybody is staring at the wall. What appears on the wall? It’s the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. He loves it. He can’t get enough. He’s looking at it and it’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. It’s incredible. He wants more of it. He asks, “Why are we looking at it in the dark?” Quickly, he runs to the back, he turns on the light and suddenly it’s gone.

What is this analogy all about? Jacob was battling the darkest of himself — the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Do you know how you beat your demons? You find out what the source is. Where does it come from? Why do I have this struggle? Why do I have this problem? What is in my past that is making me think and feel this way? What’s your name? When he asked, “What’s your name?” he wasn’t just seeking a random detail about an angel; he was trying to find out about the angel’s identity: Who are you? At your essence, what are you about? That’s why the angel freaked out. That’s why the angel couldn’t handle it. The angel asked, “What are you asking me? Stop!” Because he knew the moment Jacob finds out what this is all about, there is no more battle. It’s over.

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah

The name Yisrael (spelled in Hebrew Yud-Sin-Reish-Alef-Lamed) is an acronym of the first letters of our matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ names. Yud for Isaac and Jacob (Yaakov), Sin for Sarah, Reish for Rachel and Rebecca, Alef for Abraham, and Lamed for Leah. The name “Israel” carries not only Jacob’s striving, but the journeys of all of our ancestors, along with the belief that these journeys will lead to prevailing good.

The word for “name” in Hebrew is shem, and these letters are the center of the Hebrew word neshama, soul. God is often referred to simply as HaShem, which means “The Name.” In Hebrew, Moses’ name, Moshe, is HaShem backward. The second book of the Torah is Exodus, or Shemot in Hebrew, which means “Names.” The third book is Leviticus, or Vayikra in Hebrew, which means “God called.”

There is the name given to us by our parents, but then there is our “calling,” which we discover on our own, at the center of our soul. We do not know, for example, what Moses’ parents named him. The name we know honors the act of mercy shown him by Pharaoh’s daughter. Jacob’s new name honors his triumph over the night angel. What are you called, and what is your calling? Are you defined by your traumas or can you redefine yourself by mercies? Jacob is asked, “What is your name?” We strive to answer: “What is our calling?”

Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson took leave from the court to serve as the United States’ chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. He wrote that “the most odious of all oppressions are those which mask as justice.” He understood that the atrocities of the Nazis were all purported to be “legal.” Laws were passed depriving Jews of all rights. Laws were passed to round up, imprison and murder Jews. Moral people should have denounced such “laws” and should have resisted the “legal system.”

There are groups of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic people who seek to undermine Israel; they insidiously pose as being interested in human rights, as guardians of international law. Yet they operate with malice toward Israel and perpetrate the vilest propaganda against her. They support boycotts of Israel. They constantly rebuke Israel for any real or imagined shortcoming. For these people, justice is not just at all. Rather, they pervert justice to further their own unjust and immoral goals.

A midrash identifies Jacob’s antagonist as the angel of Esau dressed in the garb of a rabbinic scholar. This alludes to hypocrites who put on the external features of righteousness. They can be more dangerous than those who openly declare their hostility. Justice Jackson wrote of “the most odious of all oppressions” that mask as justice. We might add that among the most odious of human beings are those who have the wickedness of Esau but who wear the mask of piety and innocence.