Sunday, December 4, 2011

How We Change (portion va-yishlach)

Two steps forward, one step back. More often than not, this is the way we make progress in this life. True change for the better is rarely linear. We make resolutions, succeed and fail, succeed and fail—and with luck and hope and a great deal of effort, in the end, we succeed a little more than we fail. If we expect to turn on a dime, we will inevitably be disappointed. But when we recognize that progress is incremental—when we learn to be patient with ourselves and with others—we can slowly transform our lives and our communities.

By way of example, consider this week’s portion, Va-yishlach, in which our forefather Jacob receives a new name. After an all night wrestling match with a mysterious divine being, Jacob tells his opponent: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The vanquished angel responds with a strange and wonderful blessing: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

It’s a classic Hollywood ending—almost. Jacob, who has previously received his blessings through conniving and deceit, earns this one the hard way. And he whose name means “heel” becomes the Godwrestler , a spiritual role model for all who follow. What a story of redemption—surely everyone should live happily ever after.

But there’s just one problem: after being promised, “you shall no longer be Jacob”—just a few lines later, and on and off through the rest of his life, the Torah calls him. . . JACOB.

Why is this? How can it be that the blessing, won from the angel, is only partially fulfilled? It’s puzzling—and it’s also deeply human. For in truth, this is the way create change in our own lives. In Judaism, there is no real counterpart to what Christians call “being born again” in which one undergoes a sudden, complete and enduring transformation, like Paul on the road to Damascus. For us, this does not ring true. Jewish tradition affirms the possibility of teshuvah but recognizes that this sort of conversion is incremental and includes lots of falling back into our old ways. Sometimes we are Israel, our new and improved selves. And sometimes, even many years after beginning the process of transformation, we go back to being Jacob, the old self that we had hoped to leave behind.

And so we bear our two names—bayt ya’akov, the house of Jacob, AND b’nai yisrael, the children of Israel. We are earthly connivers and wrestlers with the divine, fallen and angelic, striving for holiness and sometimes settling for a great deal less.

We are now two months past Yom Kippur. This week, reflect on some of the resolutions you made for this new year, 5772. Where have you succeeded? Where have you failed? Don’t let the failures cause you to give up—remember, progress is slow, but it is also real!

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