Parashat Va’Yishlach: Who Are You?
Rabbi Jordan Millstein, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, serves Temple Emanuel of Worcester, MA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“What should I call you?” It is among the most common questions a rabbi gets when he/she meets a congregant or visitor to the congregation for the first time. Invariably, when I am asked this question it triggers in my mind a series of old, bad jokes: “I don’t care what you call me, so long as you don’t call me late for dinner.” Or that old Bill Saluga schtick, “You can call me Ray; or you can call me Jay…but you doesn’t have to call me Johnson!” Out loud I usually respond sincerely, “It doesn’t matter; whatever you are comfortable with is fine.”
The truth is it does matter. Your name is more than just a way for people to address you or to get your attention. People want to know who you are, who you are going to be to them. If I am called by my title, “rabbi,” I am being identified with my role, with all that is invested in it. If I am addressed by my first name, then I am simply a person, like any other. In recent years it has become common in the liberal movements to call (usually younger) rabbis by their title followed by their first name. This makes the rabbi more familiar, more approachable, but also reflects a depletion of the authority historically attached to the role.
Our names matter in another way as well. Every academic or professional remembers the day when we finished our graduate programs and reentered the world with a title before and/or letters after our names. It was both exhilarating and daunting. Our names were now different. Our status in the community was different. We were to do different work and, on some level, we were expected – and expected ourselves – to act differently. We had taken on a new and different identity. For must of us, it took some time to adjust to our new names, our new identities. For those of us who have been practicing our professions for many years it is easy to forget the discomfort, even dissonance that we felt at that time. Were we still the same person we were before we assumed the “mantle of leadership” in the community, or had we changed? Looking back after many years we might ask, “What has become of that person who we were before our names were changed?”
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’yishlach, our ancestor, Jacob, receives a new name. In one of the more famous scenes in all of the Torah, Jacob wrestles with Someone/someone (the text allows one to understand this “other” in a variety of ways) and demands a blessing from that Someone/someone. In response, he is given the new name, “Israel.” The Torah then explains the name change, “Ki sarita im Elokim v’im anashim va’tuchal.” “For you have struggled with beings divine and human and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29; NJPS translation).
My interest here is not to parse the meaning of the name, Israel. Reams and reams of commentaries have been written over the ages on this topic and I have no “chidush,” nothing to add to them. My interest is more in how the context of the narrative can help inform that meaning for us.
As a young man Jacob had manipulated his brother into selling him his birthright. Later, he deceived his elderly and blind father into giving him the blessing of the first born. In this way, ostensibly, he attained the mantle of leadership, the status of the first born and the right to lead the family of the Covenant of Abraham, i.e. the Jewish people. But, it is not at that point that he receives his new name. Rather, it is only after 20 years of hard knocks under the less than benign tutelage of his father-in-law, and as he resolved to meet his brother, Esau, whom he had wronged, that he wrestles and receives this name.
Why after 20 years? The wrestling scene itself reveals a way for us to understand this. When Jacob asks for a blessing, the Someone/someone asks him, “What is your name?” He responds, “Jacob.” Before we can truly take on our new name, the name that represents the mantle of leadership, our new identity, we need to recognize who we are, our original identity. For Jacob, as for many of us, this can be a painful thing to confront. “Jacob – Yaakov” comes from the same root as the word, “ekev,” “heel”. Indeed, Jacob is born holding onto the heel of his brother. To the point in his life where he wrestles with the angel, Jacob’s life is defined by grasping ambition. His needs for status and power, his desire to get past his brother (and by extension others with whom he competes as well, like his father-in-law) are so great that they lead him to act, at times, unethically. It takes years for him to gain the strength of character to see these parts of his identity for what it was.
Hopefully, such profound ego needs and tendencies are not at the root of the identity each of us brought with us into our Jewish professions or lay leadership roles. However, we cannot really become “Israel,” effective leaders in the Jewish community unless we are able to take a hard look at who we are deep down. For better or for worse, our former identities do not simply disappear when we take on our new roles. Our strong points and our flaws, our limitations, remain. It is only through our awareness of them that we can navigate our roles successfully and be effective leaders.
To me, this is a meaning of the injury to the hip socket that Jacob receives as he wrestles. The result is that he limps away from the wrestling scene. The Torah goes on to tell us that because of Jacob’s injury the Children of Israel do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip. In Hebrew, this tissue is called, “gid ha’nasheh”. In these words one can hear the echo of the question or plea that Jacob makes while he wrestles, “Hagidah na she’mechah” – “Pray tell me your name” (Gen 32:30). The response, “Lamah zeh tish’al li’shmi?” – “Why are you asking my name?” is a denial of our right to know the Divine name, but also a way to turn the question back on us: Don’t ask who I am. The question is, “Who are you?” If you can answer that question, then you can truly become “Israel.”