14 Kislev 5771 / December 9-10, 2011
“What is your name?” – Genesis 32:28
“A good name is preferable to great riches…” – Proverbs 22:1
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find Jacob preparing for a potentially dangerous reunion with his brother Esau (whose birthright and paternal blessing Jacob had taken). Jacob splits his camp into two (lest everyone should be wiped out upon an attack), and sends gifts via courier to his brother, hoping to quell Esau’s anticipated anger.
The night before the encounter, Jacob separated himself from his camp and his family.
“Jacob was left alone... and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” - Genesis 32:25
This is the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.
At the end of the struggle, having been defeated, the angel wished to depart. Jacob refused to let the angel leave until he gave Jacob a blessing. The first thing the angel did was to ask a simple question to Jacob: "What is your name?"
It is important to remember that while this question may sound simple to us, to Jacob, it carried a lot of weight. The last time Jacob was asked this question, he answered falsely, saying “I am Esau” in order to steal his brother’s paternal blessing from Isaac. This time, Jacob redeems himself by answering the angel’s question truthfully, saying “I am Jacob.”
At this point, the angel gives Jacob the new name “Israel” (which translates roughly to “having prevailed over the Divine”), blesses him, and departs.
The ancient rabbis have different opinions as to the role this angel played. Some felt the angel was acting maliciously toward Jacob, as Jacob was physically injured in the scuffle, while others contend that the angel was not evil, as struggling with the angel and defeating him gave Jacob the confidence to face Esau the next day. My personal take is that the angel and the accompanying struggle represent how we as human beings wrestle with our shortcomings and misdeeds, and our potential to overcome them.
Our Jewish tradition makes clear that having a “good name” – better understood as a “good reputation” – is priceless. We find this, for example, in our texts (see the Proverbs quote above), as well as in our rabbinic commentaries, such as those admonishing people who speak badly about others (using negative speech commonly referred to as “lashon harah”). Jacob was far from perfect in his actions, and as a result, his name and reputation at the time may not have been the greatest. Jacob was deceptive towards his father and took advantage of his hungry brother. Jacob’s reputation was certainly not one that Esau and his community would have found favorable.
Jacob’s name change to Israel signified a rebirth of sorts. It provided him with the confidence to confront his brother the next day as “a new man,” and with the ability to leave his misdeeds in the past and move forward. It also provides us as Jews with the comfort of knowing that for millennia we have been known as the “Children of Israel,” rather than as the “Children of Jacob,” so that our reputation as a nation would not be tainted throughout the generations.
What is your name? What does it mean to you? Who are you named for, if anyone?
What associations do you hope others make when they hear your name?
When it comes time for someone to offer your eulogy, what do you hope s/he will say?
We are all imperfect (despite what your mother may tell others about you). We all have struggles, make mistakes, and take actions that have the ability to harm others and tarnish our own reputations. But when given the opportunity to improve, like Jacob, we need to seize it.
Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, so too do we have the ability to wrestle with our own misdeeds, to come clean, to prevail over our own shortcomings, and to build reputations befitting of those as blessed as we are.
This Shabbat, take some time to reflect on your name, on some of your own perceived shortcomings, on what you want others to be saying about you once you’re gone and the actions you can take to help make it so.