The Names By Which We Are Known

To be Jewish is to belong to the People of Israel, a nation whose roots are in the land called by the same name and who share a way of life based on common values and behaviors. Where did the name “Israel” come from? Its origins are in this week’s Torah portion, in the story of the patriarch Jacob who struggles with a mysterious Divine being at the banks of the river Yabok. Jacob is prevailing in the struggle and the Divine being asks to be let go as dawn is breaking. In exchange for being released, Jacob insists on being blessed, thus he receives this reward:

“Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:29)

Rashi (1040-1105, France) comments that Jacob’s name change is significant because it represents a meaningful change of character. He writes:

“It will no longer be said that the blessing came to you through guile [akva – similar to Yaakov] and deceit, but through prevailing and openly.”

In other words, the name Yaakov (Jacob) is somewhat of a label, reminding Jacob throughout his life, and perhaps others, that he began life through an act of deceit by pulling on his twin brother’s heel to prevent him from exiting the womb first. Rashi interprets that the struggle with the Divine being is a watershed moment; before it, Jacob is deficient in character, worthy of the dark shadow cast over his life by his name, but afterward he merits being called Israel.

But different from Abraham’s name change from Abram, or Sarah’s from Sarai, Jacob’s name change is not exclusive. Even after it is changed he is still sometimes called Jacob. Indeed, the two names are used interchangeably. To this day, we refer to him both by the name Jacob and by the name Israel.

That Jacob’s name change isn’t exclusive is addressed by the Midrash, where Bar Kappara says:

“It was taught: It was not intended that the name of Jacob should disappear, but that Israel should be his principal name and Jacob a secondary one. Rabbi Zechariah interpreted it in Rabbi Aha’s name: Jacob would be the principal name – Israel was added to it.” (Genesis Rabbah 78:3)

The sages disagree as to which name was primary and which was secondary, but they concur that the names Jacob and Israel were meant to be used interchangeably. But why? No reason is explicitly offered, but I would speculate that a change of name from Jacob to Israel is only symbolic of a change in character, and doesn’t represent a change of actual substance. Israel benefits from being reminded that he can easily slip back into being “Jacob.” His name change must be reinforced and supported with a change of behavior. While it’s not productive or healthy to be constantly reminded of wrong doing, it certainly can be helpful to be aware of our past shortcomings so we can measure ourselves against them.

We each carry symbolic names throughout our lives, names that reflect different aspects of our being and our personality. These names might represent times in our lives before we matured or grew into our better selves. Like Jacob, it’s healthy and productive to carry around these names, to remind ourselves of who we are and where we came from. Perhaps that was the spirit behind this poem written by the famous poetess Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky (Israeli poet who lived from 1914-1984 and was known simply as “Zelda”). As you read it, ask yourself what names you have been known by and what names you bear today.

Each of us has a name
given by God and given by our parents

Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name given by the sea
and given by our death.

I wish you a meaningful Thanksgiving celebration, and encourage you to offer these words of prayer, authored by Naomi Levy, as you gather with family and friends on Thursday.

A Prayer for the Thanksgiving Feast

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.




I Am With You

Like many of you, the brutal attack on innocent civilians in Paris last Saturday left me both heartsick and angry. There is nothing virtuous in act of sheer hatred and blind violence, nothing noble in slaughtering people in order to sow fear and to try to dominate the life and spirit of another human being. There is no honor in a legacy of death and destruction. The best within us calls on us all to work for justice and peace and to refuse to descend to the level of the desperate and confused.   While defending the innocent, we stand with those who have suffered, in Paris and elsewhere in the world, and work for a world in which such acts of violence are abhorred and rare.

What we must not do is close our minds and our hearts to those who are in need of our compassion out of fear and self-interest. A sad and unfortunate result of the terror attacks in Paris would be to turn away from those who are in need of our protection, to turn our backs on refugees who are running from violence and hatred. Already, some have called for a tightening of restrictions on who can seek a safe haven in our country. Such xenophobia is unbecoming the best of our humanity. How much different would the Jewish people be today had we never encountered that type of fear-based hatred a generation ago?

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetse, we deepen our encounter with the story of Jacob, the man who will bear the name “Israel.” He is a young man in flight from a dangerous situation. It isn’t safe for him to stay at home, so at his mother’s urging he flees with only the clothes on his back. On his first night he sleeps out in the open under the stars of the sky with a stone for a pillow. Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels climbing up and down a ladder. He hears God speaking to him, promising to comfort him. God says to Jacob, “I am Adonai, the God of your fathers: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. V’hiney Anochi imach – Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Let us take note that God stands by the side of a young man in trouble, seeing Jacob’s potential and offering him the promise of a better future. Some commentators see the ladder with the angels climbing and descending as a symbol of a life full of struggle, one marked by ups and downs. It’s as if God is reminding Jacob that throughout life he may stumble and fall, suffer and be hurt. The angels are moving up and down the ladder to pull Jacob upward and onward, to give him another chance. It’s as if God is communicating to Jacob through his dream that He will neither give up on him nor turn His back on him.

This is God’s message to the person who has nowhere else to go: Hiney anochi imach…I am with you, I will protect you.” The Torah reminds us that God is with those who are having a hard time on life’s journey, with those who are vulnerable and lost. Numerous times in the Torah, we are commanded to reach out to the strangers in our midst and to provide them with food and clothing. One modern commentator asks, “How does God care for the stranger? Through us, for God has no hands but ours.” Just as God is with those who struggle, so must we be with them as well.

This is no time to turn our backs on refugees and to give up on people who are running away from danger. Rather, we should reaffirm our commitment to care for those in need and to defy heartless terrorists who kill and mame in order to get their way.

V’hinei Anochi imach…behold, I am with you. Whether it be the refugee fleeing violence and persecution in a foreign land or the person out on the street right here in our community, we must emulate what God does, to be with those in need with our hearts and our hands.

Thoughts From Vietnam

I write these words from Vietnam, where Amy and I are on vacation for the next few days. We’re spending some time in Hanoi and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Hanoi is a hectic and crowded city, with countless motorcycles that make crossing the street a treacherous experience. It is a combination of the old and the new, a place that wants to hold onto its traditions and experience the pleasures and benefits of a modern society as well. Our first day in Vietnam was spent in Ninh Binh, a locaton about two hours outside of the city that offers hiking, cycling and boating to explore the stalactite caves at the end of one of many canals. I climbed “Lying Dragon Mountain,” nearly 1,000 feet and countless steps similar to the climb up Masada, the reward for which was not only a remarkable view but the feeling of accomplishment as well (that’s where this photo was taken!).


We were joined on this trip by two younger couples, both in their 20s, one from Poland and the other from Germany. Amy and I introduced ourselves and said what our professions are; I never hesitate to say that I am a rabbi even to those who likely know little if anything about Judaism, though I sometimes have to describe myself as a “Jewish Priest” to those for whom English is not a first language. Not one word was expressed nor one question raised by our trip companions about the relationship between the two countries from which they’re from and the subjugation and slaughter of the Jewish people. Could it be that the topic is unimportant or irrelevant to them? Or have their generation dealt with the horrific nature of what their parents and grandparents did and didn’t do to save a people?

Also of interest was the young Vietnamese woman who owns and operates “Ethnic Adventures,” the travel company we used to plan the day’s itinerary. I had a chance to ask her if she had any feelings about Americans because of a costly and destructive war. She seemed virtually uninterested in the topic, answering that older people might remember, but her generation just wants to move on. I resisted telling her that yesterday was Veterans’ Day in the United States, a day on which we not only remember fallen heroes but also on which quite a few people of all ages feel the sting of war and its sacrifices.

Should we separate ourselves from the darkness of the past? The Jewish answer is that we always allow ourselves to remember, even when our memories are painful, for it is not really possible to remember selectively.

I look forward to discussing these reflections and other experiences with you when I return in a few days. In the meantime, please make it a point to be at Oheb Shalom for a special evening next Friday, November 20. The Shabbatones, the Jewish singing group from the University of Pennsylvania, will be with us for all of Shabbat. They are one of the nation’s premier Jewish a capella groups (they were invited to sing for President Obama at the White House Chanukkah party last year!). Next Friday night will begin with Kabbalat Shabbat at 6:15 (during which the Shabbatones will sing), a delicious Shabbat dinner at 7:00 PM, and a concert at 8:00 PM. Please try to be with us for the entire evening, but it’s perfectly fine to come only to the concert. And…the Shabbatones will hold a “Beat Box” workshop for Oheb Shalom’s kids on Saturday morning, and then will perform with our kids to end Shabbat services. Don’t miss the fun!

Abraham the Doubter

In this week’s reading from the Torah, we read of the end of Abraham’s life. What do we know about him? The Torah describes him as a pioneer, an adventurer who took a fantastic journey of discovery. Our tradition exalts and reveres Abraham as the spiritual father of the Jewish people. The Talmudic sages attribute to him a great depth of character and an inner strength that enabled him to withstand the pressure to conform. He is depicted as standing alone with great determination, upholding confidently his beliefs even if they were not popular or widely accepted.     He is called “Abraham the Hebrew” because the root of the word “Hebrew” means to stand apart from others, to be on the other side of where the crowd is headed. Abraham is deemed worthy of being God’s messenger in the world because he has an unquenchable faith.

And yet, there is plenty of evidence in the Torah that Abraham’s faith is not so solid. Soon after God appears to him and promises that he will be the father of a great and numerous nation, Abraham responds to God by saying, in essence, “What will you give me to prove that what you promise will happen?” What he wants is a child who will grow up to continue his story and champion his legacy. His need to have a child is understandable, but his request of God that he be given proof that the Divine promise will materialize is certainly evidence that Abraham’s faith needs to be reinforced in a tangible way.

In two instances, Abraham demonstrates that he ought to rely on himself rather than put his trust in God. He and Sarah travel to Egypt in search of food. Anticipating a meeting with the Pharaoh, Abraham tells Sarah that he is concerned that the Pharaoh will find his wife attractive and kill him in order to have her for himself (the same thing happens a while later with a King name Avimelech). One wonders why, if Abraham is so convinced that God will protect him, he must concoct a strategy based on a lie in order to save his life. True, Judaism encourages people to be self-sufficient and not rely on miracles. But Abraham doesn’t even seem to consider the idea that God will protect him from the Pharaoh or from Avimelech. What kind of faith is that?

Abraham seems to demonstrate faith in God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar on Mt. Moriyah. But a careful reading of the text convinces us that the whole episode distances Abraham from God. In Genesis 22:4, in the midst of the narrative known as the “Akeyda,” the “Binding of Isaac,” we read that after a journey of three days Abraham saw the place- the mountain where he would be asked to build an altar and sacrifice his son- “from afar.” The verse in Hebrew- Va-yar et ha-Makom mei-rachok– can be understood to mean that Abraham was distant from God (the word “ha-Makom” is often used to describe God, thus the verse could be translated as “he encountered God from a distance”). Rather than be seen as a story about testing or about protest, the Akeydah can be seen as a story about how our faith is not always sure or certain and how we often feel distant from God.

So who is the real Abraham? Is he the believer, the one who is certain that there is a God who loves and cares for him and who is showing him the way to go in the world? Or is he the doubter, the one who has a hunch about God but can’t be sure, the one who periodically expresses doubt that God will live up to all that He promises? Let me suggest that Abraham embodies both of these traits- he is both a believer and a doubter. At certain moments in his life, he is convinced that there is a God who will strengthen him and give him a direction to follow. And at other moments, the circumstances of his life lead him to doubt what he thought was true.

Such a person deserves to be known as the spiritual father of our people, for the tension between believing and doubting is one that we likely experience in our own spiritual lives. Rather than be confused or frustrated by our doubts about God, we might embrace them, knowing full well that we wouldn’t be the first to do so.