A Patriarch by Any Other Name...Repeat: VaYishlach 5775 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 12/08/2014 - 9:45am -- lcanfield

In Homeland a daughter decides to change her name to dissociate herself from her father who is publicly regarded as a traitor. 

Changing ones name can be an emotional, even crippling experience; when Jacob has his initial name change, the angel gives him a limp with which he’ll walk for the rest of his life. So why does he get a second name change later in the portion? Wasn’t the first encounter with the ‘man/angel’ enough?

If we interpret the first name change as a private affair between Jacob and his own conscience or the guardian angel of his brother Esau, the confirmation of the change by God makes sense. After all, if a name gets changed on a mountain, will it ever be used?

On the other hand, if we understand the wrestler with Jacob to be an angelic representative of God, what possible purpose could the second iteration provide?

I was reading Rebecca Goldstein’s final chapter of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. After putting Plato through a tour of the Goolgleplex, as the arbitrator between two 92Y child psychologists, an interview with a Bible Belt Right Wing Shock Jock, Goldstein puts Plato in a hospital gown so he can have his brain scanned in an MRI. The Neuro-scientist tells Plato that brain science has proven that there is no free will: There are clear signals of brain activity prior to our awareness of ‘making a decision’ that demonstrate our brains have made the decision before we know it.

However, there are objections to this interpretation of the data. There are those who say it would be surprising if there were NO brain activity prior to the making of a difficult decision. Perhaps slightly different parts of the brain would light up if we were heading towards a different decision but that’s no proof we have no free will. It could very well be that the brain evidence is merely following the process whereby we come to a decision.

Similarly, as important an act of contrition and maturity that Jacob’s wrestling with God was, his internal adjustment required external validation. In order to become a true Israel, a man who confronts the reality of the universe honestly, he had to act in ways that transcended his Jacob ways of getting his own way through sneaky deception.

Although his limp is the beginning of the process whereby he he earns the new moniker of Israel, he’s just begun this journey. Perhaps the most important way in which he proves himself is by both reconciling and subtly separating from his brother Esau, making right his 20 year old theft and charting his own future path, forging a separate destiny from his brother.

Finally, he demands that his family get rid of their idols and then builds an altar, as commanded by God. This is the final, necessary act before God can in good Conscience (with a capital C) grant Jacob the new name of Godwrestler or One-Who-Talks-Straight-with-God.

It’s no accident that God orders the altar be built in the place where Jacob dreamed of the angelic ladder/stairs to heaven during his escape from Canaan 20 years prior.

If we’re to fully realize our dreams, it will not take place without both reconciling with our families and setting appropriate boundaries at the same time.

Shabbat shalom.

David Lipp