Friday, November 19, 2010

What is a name?

In this weeks Torah portion we find jacob approaching the borders of Canaan on his return from Padan Aram, and his Uncle Lavan's home. He is overcome with fear over the pending reunion with his brother Esau. Remember thirty four years ago when Jacob ran in fear because he had just taken his brothers birthright.

He starts the reunion not in person but first, by sending flocks to appease Esau and placing his family and possessions on the other side of a stream called the Yabbok for safety, Ya'akov was left alone for one night which he spent wrestling with a man until the break of dawn. This strange man, whom the Rabbi's explain to be an angel reveals that no longer will Jacob be his name but rather Israel.

This leads us to the question then, what exactly is in a name? Obviously assigning names holds some cosmic significance since giving names to all the creatures on the earth is the first recorded activity of man (B'reishit 2:20). The Or HaChaim teaches us that each name represents a soul. In this light (pun intended), the causative nature of a name is revealed: a name is a representation, a function, and carries with it personality traits. The Hebrew word for "name," spelled "Shin, Mem" contains the same letters as the Hebrew word for "put," suggesting that names place upon us the very nature of our beings.
Our tradition teaches that each of us has three names: the one we are given at birth, the one we are called, and our real name. The task of each person, according to the tradition, is to discover our real name.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Do you have to believe in God to be Jewish? 
I can’t tell you how often I discuss this question with children and adults.  “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,”  I often respond.  Most people, it will not surprise you, do not believe in a God who looks like an old man sitting up in the sky pulling strings.  But do you believe that there is a source of ultimate goodness in the world?  Do you believe that everything happens for a reason?  Do you believe that at the end of the day you simply die or is there something more?  These are the questions we struggle with.
This week in the Torah we read about our father Jacob dreaming in the desert.  He wrestles with an angel.  When morning light comes the angel tries to leave.  Jacob demands that the angel bless him.  The angel says that he will change Jacob’s name to “Israel,” meaning “one who wrestles with God.” 
In our Comparative Religion class we teach our children that the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity is one of beliefs verses actions.  In Christianity the most important thing is to believe in Jesus as the human representative of God.  In Judaism the most important thing is to observe the mitzvot – the commandments which instruct us how to live a good life.  As a Jew you may struggle with the idea of God and that is OK.  That is what the people of Israel are about – we are people who wrestle with God.  This is who Jacob was, and who he became, a man who started off his life with great deceit and in turn was deceived himself.  He literally gave birth to the tribes of Israel.  Though he struggled with God, he ensured the survival of the Jewish people. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Sibling rivalry, parents’ pettiness, estranged family members. It is always surprising to me when people say that they don’t find Judaism relevant to their lives. What could be more relevant?

This week in Parashat Toledot we read about Rebecca and Isaac and their sons Jacob and Esau. As you may remember, while Rebecca is pregnant, she is told that her two sons will war against each other. She prefers Jacob and helps him trick his brother and father to receive Isaac’s blessing, which was Esau’s birthright. The story is a difficult one to understand from the outside. How could parents behave this way? Why isn’t Isaac able to un-do the blessing once he knows he has been tricked? Why aren’t Jacob and Rebecca punished?

The questions actually led me to think about families and how we often look at families from the outside and judge them. On one of my favorite TV shows the male character turns to the female one and says, “Now don’t judge me” She replies, “I wouldn’t do that.” He then says, “Sure you would! That’s what we do, we judge… Some people play sports, others read… we judge!”

Our tradition teaches us, “Don’t judge a fellow human being until you have stood in his place.” Family relationships are the most complex, difficult, and long lasting relationships that we have. Each of us struggles to live up to the ideal and embrace the reality of these relationships. Yet family relationships are often more public than we would prefer. I often think that stories like these are included in the Torah so we understand that everyone’s families have difficult moments, life-altering decisions, and attempts at reconciliation. This is what being involved with someone for your entire life is all about. You need not reproach yourself for how difficult your relationships are, but rather try simply to make them a little better today than they were yesterday.