Parashat Vayishlach 5777

Rabbi Yuval Keren, 16 December 2016


“Each of us has a name given us by God
and by our father and mother…
Each of us has a name given us by our enemies
and by those we love.”
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This beautiful poem by was written by the Israeli poet ‘Zelda’. She deliberately omitted her surname from her publications. She did so because she wanted people to recognise her for her own achievement, her beautiful poetry, her openness, and her ability to bridge between the secular and the religious worlds. She did so because she did not want people to appreciate her for her yichus –her family lineage. After all she was a relative of the Schneerson family, the Lubavitcher.

In this beautiful poem, Zelda claims that one might have many names during a lifetime, and that the name given to us at birth is not necessarily the one we will carry for the rest of our lives, and not necessarily the one we will carry to our grave.

In our scripture there is recognition of the importance of a good name. Ecclesiastes, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) tells us that “A good name is better than precious oil.” Kohelet, who was himself a member of royal family and perhaps the king himself, knew very well that oil was used to anoint royalty. Yet, he realised that anointment was not sufficient to make you into a good leader, and without real achievement you can only rely so much on yichus.
When our first Patriarch started his life, he was given a noble name – AV-RAM – exalted father. After he proved his loyalty to God time after time, his name was changed by God to AVRAHAM – a father of multitudes. Abraham begins his life with a good name, and ends it with a better one.

Our second Patriarch never gets a chance of changing his name. YITZCHAK, meaning ‘laughter’, receives his name as his mother is anxious about other people laughing at her for conceiving at such an old age. He is later laughed at by his half brother Ishmael and in his old age is mocked by his wife and son as they plot to steal his elder son’s blessing from him! Isaac is born Isaac, and dies Isaac – the one to be laughed at.

There are plenty of other characters in the Bible who experience a name change. The common character of a name change is that once a name is changed, the person carries his or her new name to the grave with them.

Yet, this is not so with our third Patriarch. Jacob’s parents were not particularly good at giving him a name. When their first son was born they named him Esau ‘עשו’ – the doer, the achiever! – what a name!

When the second child came out, he was holding his brother’s heel so they could not resist but name him YAAKOV– the one who follows behind, the one who did not quite make it to the first place. To put it bluntly, they simply named him – the LOSER!.

This perhaps could explain why Jacob was so obsessed with becoming Esau. He stole his brother’s birth-right and he cheated him out of his blessing. Esau confirms this as he discovers Jacob’s second misdeed: This is why he was named ‘Jacob’ – he followed me and took my place twice. He first took my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing.

It is therefore no surprise that, as he is about to reunite with his brother in this week’s Parashah, Jacob is very anxious. Perhaps he has changed over the years but there are still bad old memories, and old resentments could easily flare into open hostilities and bloodshed.

As Jacob spends the night in the passage of Jabok, he is given a new name. This time the name is more fitting of a patriarch. ISRA-EL, the one who struggles with God and prevails. Yet the Hebrew root of ISRA also includes traits such as leadership, royalty and pedigree.

Yet, something unusual happens to Jacob after he receives his new name. Despite this most significant event in his life, Jacob remains Jacob, and everybody keeps calling him Jacob to the last day of his life.

Perhaps Jacob does not deserve the title Israel because he does not really change after the encounter at Jabok. Perhaps Jacob remains Jacob due to his continuous mistreatment of his family, his mismanagement of the episode involving his daughter Dinah, and his preferential treatment of Rachel’s children. Jacob wants to be the leader Israel but never quite works out how to do it without hurting himself and others in the process.

Yet, what Jacob did not achieve in his lifetime, he achieved after his death. A few generations following Jacob, his descendants are not called the People of Jacob – they are given the more noble name, a name they carry with pride out of Egypt and into the Promised Land – the People of Israel.
From then on, to be Israel is a source of pride. You can either be in this exclusive club, or out! The main question is how do we define whether we and others are in or out of this exclusive club?

This remains one of the greatest, most difficult and most controversial questions faced by the Judaism of our days.

The question is made even sharper when we reflect on stories of Jewish children who want to go to Jewish schools, of Jewish couples who want a Jewish wedding, and of Jewish people who want to immigrate to Israel, and are told by ‘Jacob’ that they are not counted as ‘Israel’.

As a Liberal Jew, I know that I must rise to the name ‘ISRAEL’ and be proud of my choice of Judaism. I practise the type of Judaism that respects men and women equally, and that welcomes those who are willing to be as proud as I am of my Judaism. We must count ourselves and others as ‘Israel’ with pride, and we should not let ‘Jacob’ make us feel as if we were counted out.

1Siddur Lev Chadash page 228
2 Eccl. 7:1
3 Gen. 27:36

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