A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Rabbi David Walk
Is that really true? Would that flower smell as sweet if it were called stinkypoo? Well, William Shakespeare (putting the words into Juliet's mouth) believes that what matters is what something is, not what it is called. In other words, Romeo's a good guy even though his last name is Montague (or that he's a Jet). But is that true? Our parsha seems to question that premise. Before we get to the parsha, one more question for Mr. Shakespeare. Did you really write all those plays and sonnets? No, not that question. Is your premise about names true for people as well as objects? The objective reality of a flower is not changed by our nomenclature. However, if I may refer to Mr. Johnny Cash, calling a boy Sue will change that young man's life forever. Also, our Sages consider referring to a person by a nasty nickname as a horrible sin. So, the Shakespearean premise may not be a universal verity.
We Jews make a big thing out of naming things. The first cognitive act of the first human being was to give names to the other life forms around him. Our first Jewish couple actually had their names changed as adults to better describe them and their evolving role as paradigms for humanity. Last week eleven of Ya'akov's sons are named and each has a little description of the process and meaning of each name. The mothers used the naming process to express their aspirations and hopes. By the way this is in contrast with the sons of Avraham and Yitzchak who were named based upon the circumstances of their birth. There is a tradition, concerning which I'm highly skeptical, that parents have prophecy at the moment of naming children. If that's true then different prophetic muses were on the job in those different generations. And in our times those prophets aren't very original as we tend to name after deceased relatives. In any case, this week's parsha has, perhaps, the most famous naming ceremony of our Bible. Ya'akov is dubbed Yisrael by his wrestling opponent.
This is one of four occasions in the Torah when a person is renamed. However, our instance is very different from the other three. Abram and Sarai become Avraham and Sarah at the behest of God. Hoshea becomes Yehoshua at the hands of Moshe, his mentor. In those three circumstances the new name is a variation on the old name, and the old name is never used again. There's actually a tradition that using Avraham's old name is a transgression (Berachot 13a). Also, those three name changes involved an assurance or prayer for the future success and status of the recipient. Avraham and Sarah are to become the leaders of many progeny and Yehoshua is to be saved from the machinations of the other spies. None of those statements are true of our case. The names Yisrael and Ya'akov are used seemingly interchangeably for now on. Much effort has been invested by Bible scholars to explain the reasons why a particular name is used in a certain situation. The most famous attempt at an explanation is that the name Ya'akov denotes his physical acts and the name Yisrael is used for spiritual behavior. By and large these efforts fail or, at least, are less than convincing. The choice often seems random. Nu, so what's going on here?
I really like Ya'akov. He's perhaps my favorite character in all of the world's literature. What makes Ya'akov so compelling? Ya'akov struggles on a stage whose scope I can comprehend. He doesn't negotiate with kings or win world wars, single handedly. Ya'akov has to cope with a difficult father in law, marital tension, contentious children and personal tragedy. Sound familiar? Remind you of your Thanksgiving dinner or last Seder? If it doesn't sound familiar to you, can I borrow your life, at least for a couple of days? The name Ya'akov really is perfect for the mine field which he must negotiate. It's a verb from the Hebrew word for heel. So, apparently it means to carefully place your foot in the necessary location. It's the ideal name for someone always working out what his next step should be. There's tremendous trepidation that the next step might blow up the whole enterprise. It's very hard to live that way on a regular basis. Everyone has days like that; Ya'akov had decades like that.
But what about the name Yisrael? It is explained by the mysterious stranger who gives it to him in the following way: Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome (Genesis 32:29)." So it means to struggle, to strive or to wrestle with a problem or with life's complications, but with the assurance that he will succeed or overcome, win or prevail. Yisrael is confident and self assured; Ya'akov is careful but timid.
Now we can understand why we must only use the new names of the other characters, because it describes their new status in the world. We can see that Avraham, Sarah and Yehoshua have attained a position in society which must be acknowledged by all. Ya'akov, on the other hand, was shown by the wrestling experience that he can persevere, but the names describe his attitude toward his inner struggles. As outside observers we are never sure which aspect of this patriarch is at work. The Torah has to inform us whether he's acting out of confidence or extreme caution.
That's why I love Ya'akov so much. I'm also struggling to overcome my inner demons to face life's issues head on and sense success. I can identify with Ya'akov and try to emulate his great courage in the face of my tribulations.
This provides us with a new reading of a famous verse from both Isaiah and Jeremiah, which has become a Saturday night hymn, 'Don't be afraid, My servant Ya'akov.' Don't be afraid, Ya'akov, because you can also be Yisrael. You're not like the unchanging rose, sometimes you're a lamb, but when necessary you can be a lion.
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