Parashat Vayishlah Torah Reading: Genesis 32:4-36:43
In this week's parashah / Torah portion, Vayishlach, we revisit the phenomenon of re-naming which we first witnessed in the patriarchal/matriarchal generation of Avram/Avraham and Sarai/Sarah. I always regarded this ceremonial re-naming as part of the transition in identity that our "first couple" underwent in their journey from the world of idolatry to the world of monotheism. Indeed, to this day, one of the most moving elements of conversion in the Jewish world is the selection of a name by which the Jew by choice will be called to the Torah. The Hebrew name which declares that this person is persona grata in the Jewish world.
These first two names of transition are based on the individuals' birth names: with the addition of the Hebrew letter ה (hei), Avram becomes Avraham. With the substitution of the letter י (yod) with the letter ה (hei), Sarai becomes Sarah. Their former identities are visibly woven into their new identities.
This is not the case, however, when it comes to the renaming of the patriarch Yaakov/Jacob, whose new name has no etymological or even auditory link with his new name, Yisrael/Israel. Unlike the cases of his grandparents, though, Jacob's birth name persists. Many a rabbinic hour has been dedicated to unravelling the mystery of this patriarch's parallel identities: sometimes the Torah refers to him as Jacob, sometimes the Torah refers to him as Israel.
I have a new friend, an Imam here in Rhode Island who, as a youth in New York, converted from Christianity to Islam. As is the case with Jewish conversion, my friend chose a new name for himself that clearly identifies himself as an adherent of his new faith. His decision to be known exclusively by his new name is the equivalent to a woman named Margaret converting to Judaism and legally changing her name to her new Hebrew name Miriam and thus leaving behind the name Margaret.
I was fascinated by this expression of transformation and asked him how he felt when he recalled the young man known by another name. He told me that that person would always be a part of him, that he did not carry around with him a sense of rejection of that young man.
And that led me to my "aha!" moment regarding our patriarch, the eternally-toggling Jacob/Israel. Here is the Torah, with profound revelatory insight, teaching us that there is no such thing as completely leaving behind who we have been and what we have done. Jacob the deceptive, conniving youth grows into Israel, the wise, insightful patriarch. Although the thought is unexpressed, it may very well be that Israel regrets some of the actions of Jacob. Even though we may feel remorse for, and have learned lessons from mistakes we have made in the past, those experiences still shape who we are. Indeed, as we might posit in Jacob/Israel's case, the insensitivities and deceptions of youth may have helped to develop empathy and integrity in later life. Hence, even as Israel, there is no leaving behind Jacob.
I am grateful for this insight of our Torah, which comes to encourage us to turn even the darkest experiences of our past into the raw material of wisdom, integrity and inspiration for our present and future.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.