Sunday, November 30, 2014

Our Names, Our Selves (portion Vayishlach)

What’s in a name? 

Perhaps, as Shakespeare noted, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—but in the case of our forefather and namesake, Jacob/Israel, names reveal a great deal.

After wrestling through a long, dark night with a mysterious divine being, Jacob, the deceiver, is renamed Israel, the Godwrestler.  This is no superficial shift in nomenclature; the change in name points to a profound change in character.  It is an outward manifestation of significant internal growth.

And yet. . . .

When Jacob’s grandparents, born Abram and Sarai, receive new names, they “stick”—Torah will never again refer to them as anything except Abraham and Sarah.  By contrast, almost immediately after their grandson is 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 hard-won blessing, reflected in the name change, is only partially fulfilled?  It’s puzzling—and it’s also deeply human.  For in truth, this is the way we create change in our own lives—two  steps forward, one step back. 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.  Jewish tradition affirms the possibility of teshuvah but recognizes that this sort of shift is incremental. 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. If we expect to turn on a dime, we will inevitably be disappointed.  But when we learn to be patient with ourselves and with others—we can slowly transform our lives and our communities.

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, a complex mix of fallen and angelic, striving for holiness and sometimes settling for a great deal less.  As Walt Whitman noted, and as our many names reveal, we contain multitudes. 

We are now two months past Yom Kippur.  This week, reflect on some of the resolutions you made for this new year, 5775.  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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