Each of our patriarchs has an iconic moment which has become a key element of his personality and his spiritual legacy: Avram responds with unquestioning alacrity to God's call to leave all that is familiar and embark on an uncharted spiritual and physical journey. God renames him "Avraham" -- father of multitudes.
Isaac, never re-named, never journeyed beyond the borders of his homeland Canaan, married his "love at first sight" match Rebekkah, and faithfully received and transmitted the covenant to his son, Jacob. God named Isaac before his birth: Yitzhak -- he will laugh.
In this week's Torah reading, Jacob is also re-named, mid-life, like his grandfather Abraham.
The event around Jacob's renaming is also centered around an iconic moment: Jacob has packed up his extensive extended family of wives and concubines and children and servants and flocks and is on his way back to Canaan to re-settle in the land of his birth. His reunion with his twin, Esau, looms large in his consciousness. Jacob has prepared for this reunion carefully. He does not know if Esau will meet him with aggression or affection. So Jacob divides up his travelling estate into two camps so that, worst case scenario, Esau will only be able to attack half of Jacob's family and belongings.
Perhaps out of anxiety, Jacob separates himself from all the rest of his convoy and sleeps isolated out in the wilderness. The Torah relates: And Jacob was left by himself. And a man wrestled with him until the dawn's rising. And he saw that he was not able against him, and he touched the inside of his thigh, and the inside of Jacob's thigh was dislocated during his wrestling with him. And he said: "Let me go, because the dawn has risen." And he said, "I won't let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name won't be said 'Jacob' anymore but 'Israel,' because you've struggled with God and with people and were able." (Breishit/Genesis 32:25-29). Jacob receives the new name "Yisrael" -- who struggled with God.
Each divinely-named patriarch adds another layer to the legacy of our tradition: the eternal generations of the progeny of Abraham; the laughter of Isaac who partnered with one woman in one place; and, most fascinating, Jacob's emergence whole and blessed from his struggle with God.
How extraordinary: one who struggles with God emerges blessed. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is encouragement to question God, explore God's strength and balance our own against it. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is not just permission, but a challenge to forgo passivity and find our own best grasp of God in our lives. Like Jacob, who failed to elicit the name of his Adversary, we will never know God completely, but it is clear that we will emerge from struggle blessed.
There are a number of hugely significant moments in this week's parashah/Torah reading: from Avram's stunning act of faith in response to God's literally out-of-the-blue call: "Lech l'cha" / "Take yourself off to the place I'll show you . . . " to the first iterations of the covenantal promises of progeny and land. This is a touchstone parashah.
With so many founding principles and themes in this Torah reading, we often don't focus on an interesting dynamic of these early Breishit/Genesis chapters: God is changing or determining the names of everybody in the nuclear Avram/Sarai family. Avram becomes Avraham. Sarai, his wife, becomes Sarah. It is God who determines the name of the child Hagar will bear to Avram (Ishmael) and it is God who determines the name of the child Sarah will bear to Avraham (Yitzhak/Isaac).
Anyone who has been blessed with the opportunity to name a child has felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. as well as promise for the future and the potential of this new life. There are so many elements we want to weave into the names we choose for our children: our hopes for their future; qualities we hope will be integrated into their personalities; channeling the memories and the love of relatives who have not lived to see and hold this new child . . . .
There is something endearing about this image of God as the "namer" in this family. Not since the Eden generation, has God claimed the role of "namer." Indeed, God tasks Adam, the human, with the task of naming much of creation. (Breishit 2:19 "And Adonay God fashioned from the ground every animal of the field and every bird of the skies and brought it to the human to see what Adam would call it. And whatever the human would call it, each living being, that would be its name.")
The fact that God has taken back the role of "namer" at this moment signals the uniqueness of the relationship with this family. Even though we first encounter Avram and Sarai with perfectly serviceable names, God wants to mark them with names of God's choosing. There is a sweetness in these acts of naming. We are witnessing God's hopes for each one of these family members, the qualities they will display, their relationships with God and with other humans, are all rolled into these new names: Avram as Avraham will establish many peoples to carry on the tradition of this new relationship with God; Sarai (meaning "princess") becomes Sarah . . . the meaning of her name does not change, but the letter "hei" added to her name is understood to represent the name of God, thus making her a partner in the covenantal enterprise; Hagar's son is blessed with the name Yishma-el, promising that God will hear him throughout his lifetime; Sarah's son is to be called Yitzhak which evokes the joyous (and incredulous) laughter of his parents as they contemplate his birth.
We and our Christian and Muslim friends in the "Abrahamic faiths" are the legacy of these four people, named by God. May we, too, embody those hopes of God to be treasure our common ancestry as the descendants of spiritual royalty, and be blessed with God's listening ear and bring joy to those who love us.
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.