Parashat Vayishlach Sinai Synagogue
Each of Us Has a Name
"Each of us has a name, given by God and given by our parents... Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love."
These words by the famous Israeli poetess Zelda appear to be custom-made for this week's parashah, parashat Vayishlach. This touches on the deepest core of who we are and what we think we are. And those two things are not always the same.
This week, Jacob, the perennial trickster, can no longer run away from his own destiny. He has to face the proverbial music and dance, or rather, wrestle.
He has left Laban's house as a rich man, in possession of two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, one daughter, servants and herds of cattle, sheep and donkeys. His, shall we say, "entrepreneurial endeavours" have not been fruitless. But Jacob's creativity is not enough. It won't save him this time. Jacob's creativity has allowed him to sail the currents of his life's flow and prosper in the process. He has a knack for turning the odds in his favour as he tricks his elder twin out of his birthright, acquires two wives in the face of Laban's scheming (they really did deserve each other!) and turns Laban's fortunes against him as he amasses livestock and wealth.
Jacob has done well for himself. The currents of life could have swept him under but rather he managed to stay afloat. But what he did not do was rise above them. Rise above the intrige and manipulation, above his own impulses and needs. The Jacob we know so far has not been able to self-reflect and truly grow as a human being. Each of us has a name, the name given by our parents. Ya'acov's name is related to him grasping Esav's ankle when he was born. This is the man we know: always grasping, trying to tackle the other and hold on to what he deems his right. The Midrash relates Ya'acov to Akvah, deceit (ayin-kuf-bet is the shared root). Did Rivkah and Yitzchak in a manner condemn Jacob with his name just as they did Esav, naming him Edom, the red one, fallen to his shortsighted passions, signing away his fate for a bowl of lentil stew?
The names that parents give are truly important. Naming a child is a blessing, a calling and perhaps a prophecy. Name your children, then, with tender care and thoughtful insight! But of course things are not that simple. Judaism doesn't adhere a determinist worldview where either nature or nurture condemns us to the mistakes of our ancestors. If that were the case, well, then there is scant hope for us! The narratives of Genesis tell us of the weight of parentage and upbringing, warts and all. But also offers us a redemptive vision to use the gifts of our parents while discarding toxic or at least difficult baggage. But this requires us to step outside of ourselves, and take the God's eye perspective, so to say.
Each of us has a name, given by our parents and given by God. It is in Jacob's greatest hour of need, during his most vulnerable moment, that he grows. That he forces himself to grow. He finds himself on the banks of the river Jabbok, a tributary of the great Jordan river and the scene almost seems a repeat from his travelling experience in parashat Vayetzeh. Here too, he lodges and anxiously faces the confrontation with his estranged brother Esav. Jacob is distressed and afraid, and as Rashi comments, on account of the prospect of violence between him and Esav, whether as a victim or as a perpetrator. He prays, for the first time acknowledging his humility. Placing his family out of harm's way, he crosses the river. He is alone, in the dark, and encounters a stranger on the banks of the Jabbok with whom he wrestles. "Vayivater Ya'acov levado vaye'avek ish imo ad alot hashachar." "And Jacob was left alone and wrestled with him a man until the break of dawn." It seems poignant. Does the break of dawn symbolise enlightenment or insight gained through his struggle? The unknown man demands he let him go and Jacob demands in return to be blessed by him. The angel asks his name. Who are you? The underlying question is. And what do you think you are? Who do you hope to become?
When somebody asks our name it is a chance for us to redefine or reaffirm who we are. This is where the moment of transcendence happens. The anger renames Jacob Yisrael, 'he who wrestles with God.' As an angel, a shaliach, an emissary of the Eternal, Zelda's poem rings truer still. It is God Himself Who renames Jacob, Who recognises his existential struggle rather than a self-interested contest of wills, and blesses him through it.
Just as Jacob has swam the currents of the Jabbok and prevailed, he has finally touched a life of true meaning, of service and of hard-fought dignity. He has conquered his fears not through trickery but through honesty. And he has wrestled with God not because of an ulterior motive but to truly seek God's Name and challenge Him in the proud tradition of Abraham his grandfather. He no longer goes with the flow and is no longer shaped by circumstance and impulse but has become a riper person, a more noble person, a person ready to reconcile with Esav after twenty years and who honours the memories of his wives. Who himself breaks the toxic family patterns in the end, through reprimanding his conflictive sons and celebrating the peace and joy of his grandsons through Joseph, Manesseh and Ephraim.
Each of us has a name, given to us by our parents. There is much beauty in that as well as challenge. But if Jacob's saga tells us anything is that being a Yisrael, a God-Wrestler, a Jew who stands firmly and lovingly in the tradition of his or her people, is about seeking the transcendence, both in God and in ourselves.
We are meant to wrestle, to challenge and to grow. It may be painful and scary but it is our duty and the rewards are the gifts of a life of meaning and ethics bestowed on generations to come.