Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


Ever since I was a kid, I was intrigued with the character of Jean Valjean. My introduction to his incredible story was as a Classics Illustrated Comic. Les Miserables was number 7 in the series, which, remarkably, is still published. I first encountered many classics in that series. I still remember The Three Musketeers (the very first number) and The Count of Monte Cristo, my personal favorite. In high school I did a couple of book reports based on these fine editions. What they lacked in nuance, they made up in graphics. My more sophisticated classmates were reading Cliff Notes. BTW even today you can get the Classics Illustrated edition for $7.95, while Cliff Notes costs $8.95. That's explains a lot. I think there was a girl in my class who was actually reading the books, most of which can be had today for as little as $0.00 for a Kindle. That economic reality might have changed my reading habits. 

But part of my fascination with this noble character concerned his different identities. He was Jean Valjean, Monsieur Madeleine Le Mayor, Monsieur Leblanc, Ultime Fauchelevent, 9430, and, of course, his iconic first prison number, 24601, These names represented different stages in his life, but after he finds God, he remained the same honorable, humble personality to the end, whatever the name. We have a remarkably similar situation in our Torah reading. 

Ya'akov Avinu returns from his sojourn in the house of Laban. He has survived the spiritual dangers of that environment, and is, finally, ready to confront the other challenge in his life, his brother, Esav. Well, almost. First, he has an encounter with a mysterious stranger. He survives this trial, and then something amazing occurs. The stranger renames our hero, 'Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have confronted God and men, and you have prevailed (Breishit 32:29)' This new name is confirmed by God, 35:10. The critical word in both the new name and the explanation is SAR, which can mean to contend with or to rule. This term was once used for a chief or a general; in modern Hebrew it means a cabinet minister. So, that's the genesis of our name Israel. Like Jean Valjean, adversity has granted him a new name. 

However, this Biblical story presents us with a problem. Both the stranger and God say that his name Ya'akov will no longer be used. We have precedent for that with Avraham. When his name was changed, it was forbidden to ever use the original name again (TB Brachot 13a). Not so, with Ya'akov. The prime example is in chapter 46, verse 2: And God said to Yisrael, 'Ya'akov, Ya'akov.' How's that for cognitive dissonance! To this day, we have this dichotomy. We often talk about B'nei Yisrael, but we begin our Shmoneh Esreh addressing ELOKEI YA'AKOV. This, therefore, becomes the central conundrum: Why do have the continual flip flop between Ya'akov and Yisrael. 

The Slonimer Rebbe, in Netivot Shalom, makes two important points. The first is that there are two ways of serving God, which is revealed in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. We can be either 'children' or 'servants (AVADIM, perhaps 'slaves')'. The former is out of love and the latter out of awe and reverence. They both factor into our service of God. The Rebbe goes on to explain that when we are struggling with our YETZER HARA ('negative proclivities') we are more like servants and we must access our YIR'AH (reverence) to vanquish our earthly desires. That's Ya'akov, which comes from the word for 'heel', that part of our bodies which interfaces with the earth. While at other more sublime times, we behave like beloved offspring, in total synch and love with our Divine Parent in Heaven. That's Yisrael, which contains the letters for the word ROSH (head). Our Alter Zeidie displayed both. 

This brings us to the second point made by the Slonimer. The Rebbe points out that in Kabbalistic tradition Ya'akov represents TIFERET. This term is very hard to translate. Common attempts include: 'glory', 'beauty', or ''splendor'. Its place in the Kabbaistic matrix of SEPHIROT suggests that its best translation may be 'synthesis', because it mediates between the traits of CHESED (kindness) and GEVURA (strength or might). Those two traits are associated with Avraham and Yitzchak respectively. Ya'akov is the balance between them. To maintain that balance, he must occasionally veer toward one side or the other. Hence, he displays contrasting attributes at different junctures. The names reflect this eternal juggling act. 

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810) in his Kedushat Levi makes another observation. He emphasizes the term SARAH ('confronts', 32:29). This holy Rebbe explains that this term is best translated 'interacts'. The remarkable reality of the name Yisrael is that our Patriarch was able to stay in synch (DAVUK) with God even when interacting with other humans, a very rare accomplishment. However, on those occasions when his involvements with other people temporarily eclipsed this connection to God, he is called Ya'akov. 

This approach helps us to understand the soothing words of God (46:2), before the descent into Egypt and eventual bondage. God contacts Yisrael, but affectionately calls 'Ya'akov, Ya'akov.' I believe this encourages him to realize that even when worldly entanglements detach him from his DAVEIKUT, God remains in close contact. This incident reminds us that although our spiritual attention may wander, God is always available to us. 

Ya'akov evolves through the 13 chapters which focus on him. His new name, Yisrael, rewards and accentuates this spiritual growth. Nevertheless, his innate strengths, described by the name Ya'akov, never departed him. This is what intrigued me about the character of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He never forgot the struggles which preceded his wealth and prominence. His epiphany that he would always be grounded in his prison experience made him one of literature's enduring characters. Ya'akov is the original model for that strength of character, and we must emulate that example. We never shed our origins.