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.
Parashat Vayetze Torah Reading: Genesis 28:10-32:3
וַיֹּאמַר: "מַה נונּוֹרָא הַמָּקווֹם הַזֶּה! אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם".
And Jacob was filled with awe, and said: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'
This week's parashah / Torah portion open opens with the very graphic story of Jacob's ladder. After decades of alienation from his brother Esau and his homeland, Jacob is on a journey of return with his wives, Leah and Rachel, and his children. One night, he sleeps in an isolated spot and witnesses/dreams the apparition of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels moving down and up the ladder. This story has inspired commentators and artists for milennia, to my mind it provides us with enriching imagery for remembering who we are and what we should be keeping in mind every time we gather together: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'
A synagogue is a lot of things: a place of worship; a community center; an education center; a social center, but the overarching umbrella concept that includes all of these and more is "house of God."
I like the combination of images in this verse: house of God and gate of heaven. What can that mean? Can we sit back and assume that any house of God also serves as a gate of heaven or is it a matter of earning the status of gate of heaven?
And what does "gate of heaven" mean anyway?
A gate is like a threshold. A gate allows us to pass from one realm into another. A congregation, a house of God, at its best, is a place where those who enter can find ways to move from the secular to the sacred.
On Tuesday evening, I asked the members of our Torat Yisrael board "What can we, as the leaders of this house of God do to assure that our congregation also serves as a gate of heaven?" I believe strongly in the essential role of leaders in shaping and guiding the values and culture of a congregation. But a congregation is, by definition, a collection on people brought together through a common denominator. Our common denominator, of course, is engagement in Judaism as a Conservative community.
In an ultimate and profound sense, the shaping and guiding of the values and culture of our congregation is the responsibility of everyone affiliated with Torat Yisrael, not only the formal leadership. And so I bring this same challenge to the entire Torat Yisrael family.
What we need to do is to agree among us, first of all, that we want Torat Yisrael, our house of God, to be a gate of heaven. Before we can work on the "how" we need to agree on the "what."
For the last few years, I have asked the officers and board members of our congregation to recite the following prayer on the occasion of their installation. I feel it is an outstanding blueprint for building and sustaining a house of God that is a gate of heaven:
May the doors of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for fellowship. May we welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the doors of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.
May its threshold be too high to admit complacency, selfishness, and harshness.
May it not be a stumbling block to the young, or a hindrance to those who are older.
May this synagogue be, for all who enter the doorway to a richer more meaningful life.
To which I can only say "amen!"
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.