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Rabbininc Reflections - Parshat Vayishlach                            December 14, 2019 - 16 Kislev 5780

12/13/2019 02:24:33 PM


Judith Martin, better known by the pen name Miss Manners, is an American journalist, author, and etiquette authority who once quipped: “The invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes — naturally, no one wants to live any other way.” Truth is that one day we wake up and realize we’re not children anymore. Perhaps it’s after we graduate elementary school, or maybe its high school, or maybe it’s when we have our first kiss or start to worry about money or death. For me, it was when I turned 60! Whenever it is, we do grow up. We’re forced to. There comes a time that we’re no longer allowed to be dependent on our parents. It is a time when our innocence disappears; a time when our carelessness is no longer seen as youthful and charming, but as pathetic and unduly childish. 

Growing up is by no means a bad thing. It allows us to make a difference in the world, to find out who we are, and to live the life we imagined as children. We dreamed of growing up when we rested our young heads on our downy pillows and looked up with wonder at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to our ceiling, wondering what the world looked beyond our own home, beyond the world that had been so meticulously created for us. 

Yet upon growing up, we find that reality often contends with those very dreams. We find that the reality of growing up is perhaps less lovely than we’d envisioned. We find that the only thing we really want back is our youth and our innocence, and the cruel irony is that these are the very things that will never return. 

As the Torah portion of Vayishlach begins, Jacob has returned home to Canaan after 20 years in his uncle’s household in Padan-aram. A lot happened to Jacob during those 20 years. He became a husband and a father, he was successful in business and acquired considerable wealth, and he learned, through his dealings with his uncle Laban, that it’s not nearly as much fun being tricked as it is being the one doing the tricking. Most of all, Jacob had grown up. He was no longer that young man who had fled from his brother’s not unjustified wrath.

On the night before he is to encounter his brother Esau again, the Torah tells us (Genesis 32:24), “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Jacob refuses to let the “man” go until he has blessed him and he is told (Genesis 32:28), “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Sometime later, God appears to Jacob and says (Genesis 35:10), “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” Jacob’s new name is proof from God that he had, in fact, changed.

Jacob’s name (Yaakov) was formed from the word akeiv, heel, because he was born grasping his brother’s heel. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, 11th century Provence) says that the name Yaakov indicates one who comes under cover and with guile, a trickster; the new name of Israel denotes a prince and a ruler. Jacob had earned a name to be proud of.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark (20th century USA) observes: So what is surprising is that the Torah continues to use the name Jacob. In fact, it appears much more frequently than the name Israel. From the moment that God changes the names of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, only their new names are used. Yet Jacob never loses his original name. Why? Perhaps to teach us that while we can and hopefully do change and grow, we never completely eradicate our former selves. Certainly, anyone over 30 has at least one thing in his or her past – something stupid, reckless, cruel, or thoughtless – that we wouldn’t want to make public. But no matter how hard you try, these are the things that you can’t erase from your memory. 

When we grow up, when we becomes responsible adults, we learn from those mistakes and try hard not to repeat them. And perhaps the painful memory of our past mistakes helps us to think twice before we make new ones. For Jacob-Israel, one sign that he had learned and changed was his new name. But still, the Torah reminds us, Jacob remains a part of Israel. Like our father Jacob, each of us is the sum of all of our past experiences, the positive and the negative. Decent, mature, menschlich people work hard to avoid repeating their negative experiences and enhance and expand the positive ones. And just maybe, when Israel looked back at Jacob, when we look back at the stupid things we did in years past and see how far we have come, it can inspire us to go still farther.

Shabbat Shalom!


Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780