Vayishlach - weekly Torah portion

We feel that something odd is happening when we read this week’s portion of the Torah. We first read about Jacob “was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Jacob does not have the faintest idea with whom he was wrestling and the someone refused to identify himself.

Jacob’s change of name does not simply finish with that story and it repeats again as Jacob makes his voyage back to Canaan. “Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. 10 God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you. The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendants after you.’” Jacob’s name is changed twice to the exact same name. Admittedly an odd thing.

On the other hand it seems safe to say that when things concern Jacob that fact that things happen twice are not really a big surprise. He is a man where duality is almost a second nature. The story about his two wives, Leah and Rachel, is certainly something to ponder upon. Esso complains bitterly about that tendency of Jacob, “Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Even the stew that Jacob prepared is described using a duplicity, “feed me from this red-red stuff”. There is something quite confusing about this Jacob, on one hand an innocent and quite personality and on the other hand, sophisticated and smart. This can bring about quite a bit of suspension, it is the material of true drama but can at many times also generate loads of embarrassment.

Going back to the change of Jacob’s name it is reasonable to wonder why it is at all necessary to change his name twice. Did he not remember that his name was changed?! He does not even seem surprised to be named again with the same name. The first time an explanation is given to the choice of name but at the second time no reason is provided whatsoever. In the biblical Hebrew, however, different words are used to describe the change of name and maybe there we can find some explanation of the meaning of that change. At the first change of name the word יֵאָמֵר is used while in the second time the word וַיִּקְרָא is used. The first meaning ‘to be said’, the second meaning ‘to be called’. Zelda, the late Israeli poet says so eloquently, “Each man has a name, / Given by God / And given by his mother and father.” Even if one receives the very same name it still receives its meaning by the person bestowing or using that name.

A few years ago the Reform Movement in Israel went through a quandary if we should use the term “Reform” when referring to our movement in Israel. For many decades the Movement in Israel shied away from the association with Reform and used instead the name Hatnuah LeYahadut Mitkademet disguising under the acronym of Telem. Going through a major strategic planning process this issue came about and a tough decision was taken. It was not easy but a decision that has proved itself over the past few years. We proudly refer to the Movement as the Israel Reform Movement which also became our leading brand. We are deeply connected to the history of the Movement and are well aware of its high and low points. Our ability to look into our history, learn from it, fix that which requires fixing and maintaining that which continues to serve our future needs is a point of strength and pride. The word ISRAEL within our name shows that we can struggle with mighty forces, the need and the ability to confront complex issues that provide ample challenges. We do not simply hide at a place of convenience and say that the past has determined the future outcome and decision but rather we say – Israel – go wrestle with the issue with resolve, tenacity and courage, even when facing a great force.

In just a few days the Union for Reform Judaism of North America will hold its biennial conference in Boston. The URJ has announced that a record number of six thousand participants have registered to the conference from five hundred congregations across of the land and from some twelve other countries, including Israel, of course. Our collaboration will bring us successes here in Israel as well as over there in the USA and Canada. We call from the home of the Jewish People wherever they may live to strengthen our ties from here to there and vice versa, open heartedly, with a willing soul and open handedly. Together we will be called Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 1 December 2017, 14 Kislev, 5778

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