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Why Revenge?  Dvar  Torah VaYechi

13/01/20 12:19:39 PM

Jan13

Rabbi Boris Dolin

Playgrounds sometimes can be unfortunate models for how the world functions.  A few weeks ago, I was at our favorite park with my kids and they were having fun playing, running around and chasing each other, and I hear the words that any parent gets very used to.  Tati, he pushed me! (Notice I left out the name of which child it was, to protect the innocent, or maybe to protect the guilty.) When I brought in the kids to explain, of course it turns out, one of them was pushed, because the other one did something first, and would you believe it, this happened because the other one, and this is a direct quote “started it”!  

This familiar but tiring conversation is of course repeated on a regular basis through all of our childhoods, a frustrating, sometimes playful and sometimes hurtful game of action, payback, and revenge.  Except in the rare occasions when someone actually does get seriously hurt, this is all part of growing up and learning how to deal with relationships and how to respond to challenging situations. We hope that as we become adults, we learn better how to respond to these situations when they move from the playground into the realities of the “real world”.

 

Yet, the unfortunate truth is that revenge clearly has a hold on not only a personal lives, but any look at recent history, and even the news of the past week shows us that revenge is the core cause of war and violence in our world.  The killing of Iranian general Soleimani by a US drone last week, was of course revenge for the killing of US soldiers, even though the US said that it was to prevent an attack being planned by Iran. The Iranians retaliated by sending missiles to attack multiple US military facilities, where thankfully no people were hurt.  Trump said that he would hit back with such strength that he was willing to essentially commit a war crime by attacking with deadly force not only Iranian military sites but cultural sites, tweeting:

WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran &  the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

As we know as the situation progressed over the course of the week, 

Trump as expected, backed down from his plan, but both Iran and the US had their finger on the red button so to speak, ready to attack at a moments notice, ready to start a war until one side was one top.  And now, while no war has yet started, we are left with the tragic crash of the Ukrainian airliner with 176 people including 57 Canadians, a truly horrifying side affect of this escalating violence. As US Senator Chuck Schumer said, we “shouldn’t shed any tears” for the death of Soleimani, but that doesn’t mean the response has been perfect. Things are not looking good, and all of us rightfully are worried about what will happen next.

In the Torah, of course violence is prevalent, but the prevention of unjust violence is core to the values of the Torah.  God’s covenant with Noah and humankind after the Flood identifies murder as the ultimate crime: “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God, God created man” (Gen. 9: 6). Unjustified killing seems to call to heaven itself.  God said to Cain after he had murdered Abel, “Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).

We are later told that  Cohen who has shed blood is not allowed to bless the people. (Talmud, Brachot 32b).  David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood.” I Chronciles 22:8 Death not only defiles the person sho kills, but it also works quickly to make our relationships, and our world unclean.  

Yet, the Torah, as with so much else, is not necessarily entirely against violence, and does allow for revenge from God, and a less physical revenge from people.  The Biblical idea of the goel ha-dam, often translated as ‘blood-avenger.’ describes a person who fixes something broken in the world, or more succinctly rights an imbalance in the world.  The word is more accurately translated as “blood redeemer”. There are many instances of this kind of redemption in the Torah. In the story of Ruth and Noami, Boaz redeems land belonging to Naomi.  And course we know from the familiar Passover story, that God redeems God’s people from bondage in Egypt. A goel ha dam is someone who in a way acts with revenge, but does so not through violence, but through righting a wrong without necessarily hurting another.  Words and thoughtful action, not war and violence.  

Rabbinic texts actually have a definition for the idea of revenge, nekima, and connect it with the more familiar ideas of holding grudges.  The rabbis manage to make the idea one that is both a part of daily life and also the cause for the wars and violence which we fear. 

The Talmud (Yoma 23a) interestingly defines the prohibition of nekima through the very mundane example of the refusal to lend out a tool to someone who had previously refused to do the same. It seems clear that this passage does not mean that the only type of prohibited nekima is refusing to help another with one's property. In the Sifra (Kedoshim 2:4) the same example is used, but it asks a more detailed question, examining when a very important line is crossed. Instead of asking  “What is revenge?” we are asked: “How far does the power of revenge extend?” and even more uncomfortably “What does bearing a grudge do when it becomes something more?” 

Overall, the rabbis thankfully through this and other texts offer a friendly reminder to pay attention to when things can easily get out of hand.  They remind us to watch the small grudges that we might have, in our relationships, and one would assume with our leadership and society issues, and be careful of crossing the line and letting these feelings get out of hand.  

Maimonides, the Rambam describes the personality of someone who is always seeking revenge, describing how this feeling changes us deeply:

Even though it is not punishable by lashes, it is a very bad trait. Instead, a person should be forgoing of his rights as regards all mundane things, for men of understanding consider all these things as vanity and emptiness which are not worth seeking revenge for.

He continues by reminding us that it all starts with a breaking a grudge, and we need to stop these harmful feelings before they get stronger

A person who acts in this manner violates the prohibition against bearing a grudge. One should eradicate the thing from his heart and not bear a grudge. For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. Therefore, the Torah emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong shall be obliterated and no longer remembered. This is a proper quality which permits a stable environment, trade, and commerce to be established among people.

 -(Hilkhot De'ot 7:7) 

The Keli Yakar (Vayikra 19:18) goes one step further. He writes:

Nekima and netira are [the manifestation of] negative character traits, for it is not proper to seek revenge upon any person from among “your countrymen.” Ostensibly, revenge is sought for injury to your body or your possessions, but these things are not so treasured and important to justify taking vengeful action… for physical infractions, God does not want man to take revenge.

Cleary our tradition is sensitive to the very personal nature of revenge, and sees the acts and the feelings connected with it as common, familiar but ultimately very dangerous.  We have to always be examining our feelings, and be attentive to the roles of power and grudges in our interpersonal relationships. And for those in positions of leadership, especially those with their fingers on the buttons of violence, war and killing, the attention to the roots of revenge are even more necessary.

This idea of revenge come up in this week's Torah portion.  

Earlier in the book of Genesis, Jacob responds to an unjust massacre committed by Simon and Levi against the people of Shechem. Soon after they hear that their sister Dinah was raped by the prince of Shechem, the brothers pillage and murder the entire town.  While the rape of Dinah does deserve punishment, we are left to ask if the response, clear collective punishment, was justified.  

After the event in Shechem, Jacob speaks to his sons and talks about the very personal toll that it will have on him:

You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perrizites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.

-Genesis 34:30.

Yet, now on his deathbed as Jacob is blessing, (and cursing) his children, he in his more mature wisdom sees their act as something which was harmful on a greater level,  It killed innocent people and also was a sign of a deeper problems in their souls. When he reflects on the lives of Simon and Levi, he blames them:

Simon and Levi, the brothers—

weapons of outrage their trade. […]

For in their fury they slaughtered men,

At their pleasure they tore down ramparts.

Cursed be their fury so fierce,

And their wrath so remorseless!

-Genesis 49:5-7

Jacob’s first sees the act of revenge as an individual act of two brothers, and now, on his deathbed, he understands that revenge in this way is harmful not onto to him and his family but to society in general.  In his final goodbye to his children he is able to see that while we often let our emotions take hold of us, it is always important to think of the long term visions and outcomes of our actions. A quick revenge, is never quick.

I would hope that in the daily back and forth of revenge, the daily wars and violence that we encounter in our world, we do not have to wait for our deathbeds to come to the realization that something needs to change.  The escalating violence in Iran threatens to grow into an all out war, and even with these few days of calm, it is clear the lingering desire for revenge from leaders without much ability to reflect of offer concern for others, may very soon turn into real and painful action.  Retaliation, revenge, grudges--when will it stop?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes revenge as at its core about how we see relationships:

People often find it difficult to distinguish retribution and revenge, yet they are completely different concepts. Revenge is an I-Thou relationship. You killed a member of my family so I will kill you. It is intrinsically personal. Retribution, by contrast, is impersonal. It is no longer the Montagues against the Capulets but both under the impartial rule of law. Indeed the best definition of the society the Torah seeks to create is nomocracy: the rule of laws, not men.

Retribution is the principled rejection of revenge. It says that we are not free to take the law into our own hands. Passion may not override the due process of the law, for that is a sure route to anarchy and bloodshed. Wrong must be punished, but only after it has been established by a fair trial, and only on behalf, not just of the victim but of society as a whole. It was this principle that drove the work of the late Simon Wiesenthal in bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. He called his biography Justice, not Vengeance. 

I hope we can pray that our leaders put the needs of all people ahead of their own desires for vengeance, the lives of millions of innocent civilians ahead of an insulted ego.  We hope they can be reflective enough to look forward with compassion and clarity to do what is right. Suffering and violence will always be here, but the way to respond is not what some are doing now.  As Martin Luther King reminds us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This is a reminder that we need now more than ever.

A New Page

05/01/20 11:57:16 AM

Jan5

Rabbi Boris Dolin

On a warm summer day a little over 7 years ago I started a habit.  While I wish I could say I started daily training for a triathlon, or took on the challenge of fulfilling my lifelong dream to become fluent in Klingon, what I did was something that at least on the surface was much more mundane.   Along with hundreds of thousands of other people around the world I began the daily study of a page of Talmud called daf yomi.  I made my way through page after page, through the stories, the laws, the arguments and the questions.  Sometimes I studied with others, or often alone, as I journeyed through the texts, enjoying and often being challenged by what I encountered.  

 

This was a deeply spiritual exercise in so many ways, necessitating the commitment and focus of a meditation practice, but also the intellectual rigor of a university class.  As the core text of the Judaism that we live and practice, I was fascinated by the conversations and found joy in discovering the roots of so much of what we do. Through my Talmud study, I read about why we light two (and not three or seven) Shabbat candles, and why we eat certain traditional foods, or say certain prayers.  While I can’t say every page was interesting, looked at as a whole, it was a beautiful journey. Yet in the end, life, work and the good old stand by of an excuse--kids got in the way, and I only made it to about a year and a half. But tomorrow, I will attempt to start this process again.  

 

The idea of Jews all over the world studying the same page of Talmud each day, is actually only a century old.  At the World Congress for Agudat Yisrael in 1920, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who was then the Rabbi of Sanok, Poland proposed the idea and it was passed.  Before this time, Jews only were studying some parts of the Talmud, the most useful and most interesting tractates, and some sections were rarely studies.  Most importantly though, Rabbi Shapiro saw the program as a way to unify the Jewish people. As he explained to the Congress delegates:

 

What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes gemara Brachot Under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Yisrael to America, and each day he learns the daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a beis medrash in New York and finds Jews learning the very same daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the beis medrash, where he finds everyone learning the same daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?

 

A page a day!  This would not be too insurmountable a task with say, the Torah, the Book of Kings, or maybe Harry Potter.  Yet, the Talmud, is not always as easy to deal with. While there are often fascinating arguments and wonderfully revealing stories and conversations that are recorded, there are also many dreadfully boring halachic arguments--back and forths about the minutiae of some archaic law, or arguments that are so complicated that they are laid out like calculus with words.  There are uncomfortable exchanges about the roles of women in society, or laughably scientifically outdated statements, and sometimes even ideas that there is no way to see as anything but racist. It is an incredible mix of everything and anything, truly a work of unparalleled gems, and sometimes unbelievable drudgery.

 

As part of my rabbinical studies, I did study in detail some of the important sections of the Talmud.  Both during my time studying at RRC in Philadelphia and also at Yeshiva in Jerusalem, we looked at some key sections of the Talmud--but this was no page a day.  During my year in Israel while studying at Pardes, and Egalitarian Yeshiva in Jerusalem, we took our time covering, if I remember correctly, about ten pages of Talmud over the course of the academic year.  We focused on the fascinating conversations and laws stemming from a simple question about Shabbat candles in Tractate Shabbat. I definitely enjoyed the pace, and taking our time to study this small part of the text allowed us to learn the vocabulary, and Talmudic ideas, but also left plenty of time to get off on endless tangents.  We had conversations about candles, of course, which led to enlightening conversations about politics, gender, theology, Jewish identity, and one oddly heated argument about doorbells. Just like the rabbis of the Talmud would have wanted.

 

To say the Talmud has a structure, is somewhat of a strange statement.  Yes there are sections, 63 tractates or sections divided by subject--from holidays to specific laws, put into six larger orders.  Yet, to say that these sections necessarily hold texts that stick to their subject matter is far from true. One moment, you are studying one idea, and then a rabbi comes in and asks a question or tells a story (or in a not entirely rare moment, a joke or my favorite,  wonderfully lighthearted insult), and then we are on to an entirely different topic that well, seemingly has nothing to do with anything. It is a truly incredible mix of structure, and the most free flowing conversations and arguments, with endless tangents and winding roads, and more than its share of dead ends.  Yet, in the end, no topic is left uncovered. Some questions are answered, but very purposefully, some are not--the meaning coming from the conversations rather than the outcome

 

And what is the point of this strange structure?  On a practical level we could argue that it was simply the reality of trying to record too many complicated ideas from a group of opinionated Jews, and there is bound to a little bit of rambling.  Yet on a deeper level, the Talmud is telling us something very important about life. Everything is connected. Faith, identity, food, love, history, work, swimming, weather, sex, justice, prayers, women, men, gender, mathematics, the intricate details of a Hebrew letter and the deepest questions of human interactions.  It is all a shimmering web of connection and mystery. These creators of Jewish life as we know it wanted us to see these connections in everything, to know in the deepest possible way that Judaism is not just about believing in a God, or connecting with our past, but it is about finding holiness in all parts of life, and questions in everything we do.  If everything is connected and worth examining in detail the way the Talmudic rabbis do, then everyone word, every experience and truly every moment is a blessing, every exercise deserving of examination, and every experience an adventure waiting to be had.

 

Yet, beyond the text itself, I want to bring us back to the Daf Yomi, the process of studying a page of Talmud a day.  This is not an easy task, and it involves a level of commitment that is actually very similar to any other healthy habit, like going to the gym or meditation.  Each day, no matter what the weather, no matter what is happening in your life, you open the Talmud, and join the ancient rabbis for a few minutes. Like a workout, sometimes you might truly enjoy the process and walk away with a smile, and sometimes you may be happy to have the whole thing over with.  As I mentioned, my first attempt to do Daf Yomi lasted only about a year and a half.  I know that even without such a busy life, opening the Talmud each day was a big task.

 

The author Ilana Kurshan, who wrote a wonderful book about her journey into Daf Yomi called If All Seas Were Ink, puts it well when she writes:

 

A commitment to learning daf yomi is sort of like a marriage — you’re in a relationship for the long haul, even if most days there are no passionate sparks. Sometimes it’s hard to find anything meaningful or relevant on the page, but perhaps it helps to imagine those pages as the context for the more exciting material that will follow a few days later. Without the context, you cannot fully appreciate that fabulous story about the man who mistakes his wife for a prostitute, or the unicorns that could not fit into Noah’s ark. On pages where the topics seems less interesting, it sometimes it helps to pay attention not just to what the rabbis are saying, but to how they transition from one subject to the next. To learn daf yomi, you have to allow yourself to be carried along for the ride — and while it’s almost never smooth sailing, some days are certainly bumpier than others.

 

And this process of Daf Yomi, of pushing forward through the joys and challenges of the text, and the joys and challenges of life, is something I have been thinking of as I prepare to start this process again tomorrow.  Our world is in a very different place than it was seven years ago, and it is not just our own lives that might be different.  The political situation in so many countries has changed, the environmental crisis is wreaking havoc on the weather every day, and as I have mentioned before, I am having trouble keeping the hope that we can hold it all together and survive the next few hundred years.

 

And now to add to the challenges, we have the growing threat of anti Semitism.  The recent attacks in New York and New Jersey are the most recent examples, shocking and horrifying incidents which force us all to realize that we are not quite as safe as we once thought. Those horrible ideas, those sick lies and beliefs that we might have thought were buried in the aftermath of the Holocaust are back.  They are fueled by conspiracy theories, the dirty ocean of social media, and a US president that openly supports white nationalists and racist ideas. It is both unbelievable, and unfortunately, entirely expected.

 

And this is where we once again start Daf Yomi.  Opening a page of Talmud, and entering the world of the rabbis is not only an act of study, but a spiritual practice, and a powerful and quiet act of resistance.  Each day, we will continue to move forward in the text and in life, and will keep the connection with all of the other Jews who are studying along with us.  We will move past the challenges, move ahead of the difficulties we find, and be guided not necessarily by answers but by questions.  

 

This was clearly the feeling at the large Siyum HaShas gathering in New Jersey last week where thousands of Jews gathered to celebrate the completion of Daf Yomi cycle.  The situation in the world, and the recent anti-Semitic attacks were on people's minds, but, and this is the point, it was not the focus.  A recent NY Times article put it well:

 

On a windy and biting cold day, the gathering offered a chance to affirm their faith in the face of those terrible acts. Some believed the event contained echoes of Jews who were held in ghettos or concentration camps during the Holocaust and resisted their persecutors by saying clandestine prayers, teaching their children the Torah or furtively blowing a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana.

 

“You can’t compare it completely, but we’re showing that we’re not going to allow these attacks to change our course, change our language, change our clothing, change our God,” said Daniel Retter, an immigration lawyer whose parents escaped Austria under the Nazis and who participated in the Talmudic study with a dozen other members of his synagogue in the Bronx.

 

“The Talmud has gone through the Crusades, the pogroms, the Holocaust and too many atrocities to name, but the Talmud and the Jewish people have persevered and maintained our roots, and will continue to grow,”...

 

Yet, the Jewish Forward, saw things a bit differently:

 

But to the insider, the reality [of the event] was very different. In a four-hour long program, between a dozen speakers, the violence that this community now faces daily was barely mentioned.

 

It’s surprising, right? Just four days after five Jews were stabbed with a machete, and a few weeks after two Jews were murdered in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, with hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents against visibly Orthodox Jews over the past year, you’d think that at a gathering of 90,000, it would be central.

 

It was not. Because rather than an act of defiance, the Siyum Hashas was entirely apolitical — it was no demonstration, no march, no rally. And it was an encapsulation of the fact that Jewish practice in the face of adversity is nothing new for us.

The event symbolized how much these attacks fit into the narrative that frum Jews tell of our heritage.

 

It’s this that the media has struggled to comprehend in its coverage of rising anti-Semitism against Orthodox Jews: Our understanding of our suffering has always had, first and foremost, spiritual significance. In every generation, they rise up against us, the Haggadah tells us. Traditional Jews take that literally.

 

Thus, during the Siyum Hashas, two of the leading rabbis of the Agudath Israel, Rabbi Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky did not allude to anti-Semitism, the ongoing threats, or the anxiety that many participants may feel. The Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, mentioned it in brief passing. Throughout, their topic was singular: The importance of study, its centrality to our lives. They emphasized the importance of consistency, of aspiration — of not letting failure drag one down.

 

Tomorrow morning, I will open my Talmud and begin to study once again.  I will join not only the thousands of others doing the same, but also through this process will in a very real way, become part of the story itself,  joining the ancient Talmudic rabbis at the table to learn along with them. I will try, and I may again fail, to keep it up each and every day for the next seven years, but I will take it on as an exercise in commitment to my heritage, as a daily meditation, and especially now as an act of resistance against a very complicated world.  

 

I can take comfort in the solace of the conversations of the Talmud, take a moment of pause from the pain and challenges that we see around us.  As Talmud’s Rabbi Yeshoshua ben Levi says: “one who is walking along the way without a companion and is afraid, should engage in Torah study.” It is not always easy, but study, however you understand the term, guides us forward with intention, knowing that no matter what happens in our lives and in the world, there is always one more page to go.

 

 

 

Every Person Matters

13/12/19 11:38:53 AM

Dec13

One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.

– Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes in the Torah, the smallest and most seemingly insignificant people and moments can have the biggest impact.  This week, we begin the story of Joseph, the Torah’s longest continuous narrative (and one that has been made into countless movies and plays).  As the story begins, we are told that Joseph’s father Jacob loves him more than his other sons, which has made Joseph’s brothers hate him “so they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Gen. 37:4).  Joseph then has two dreams that predict that he will rule over his brothers, once again making them angry.  Finally, his brothers are gone, and Joseph’s father tells him to go search for them.  And this is when we have to pay attention to the details.  We read:

“When [Joseph] reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields.  The man asked him, “What are you looking for?”  He answered, “I am looking for my brothers…The man said they are gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan”(Gen. 37:14-17).  

With this important information, Joseph goes to Dothan, and finds his brothers, who proceed to throw him into a pit, where he is sold to traders and eventually ends up in Egypt.  We of course know where the story goes from there: he ends up working for the Pharaoh, and a series of events take place which eventually lead to the rest of the history of the Jewish people including the Exodus from Egypt.  And why did all of this happen?  Because this man, an anonymous man, and a profoundly minor character in the story helps Joseph find his brothers.  One simple question, a few kind words, and the entire history of the Jewish people is changed forever.

There is a temptation as we go about our lives to always believe that we have to be the best and greatest at all that we do.  We want to have the biggest impact on others and want to make big change in the world.  Some want to be famous, others want to be rich, and many simply want to do work that is meaningful and to be happy and healthy.  No matter where we stand, we can and should always aim high, but we can also gain strength from the fact that sometimes the simplest acts can often have the greatest impact.  

This is why Jewish ethics asks us not only to care about “changing the world” and fixing what is broken in our society, but also stresses the importance of the minutia of daily life.  We are reminded to “guard our tongue” when we speak and to take care in our relationships.  We are told to remember and bless the small moments of beauty we encounter, and make a weekly holiday to focus on rest.  We focus on these little acts, so that we can have the spiritual strength achieve greatness.  If we start with kindness, focus on blessing and if we pay attention to the needs of others, then we can’t help but bring goodness into the world.  These may be small acts, but this is where compassion starts.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it well:

The truths of religion are exalted, but its duties are close at hand. We know God less by contemplation than by emulation. The choice is not between ‘faith’ and ‘deeds,’ for it is by our deeds that we express our faith and make it real in the life of others and the world. Jewish ethics is refreshingly down-to-earth. If someone is in need, give. If someone is lonely, invite them home. If someone you know has recently been bereaved, visit them and give them comfort. If you know of someone who has lost their job, do all you can to help them find another. The sages call this ‘imitating God.’ They went further: giving hospitality to a stranger, they said, is ‘even greater than receiving the divine presence.’ That is religion at its most humanizing and humane.

Being a good person is not meant to be a challenge.  We simply need to start small, and work to bring compassion and love into all that we do.  And as we head into the Hanukkah season, a time of light amidst the darkness, this is what the world needs most from us.   

13/12/19 11:38:47 AM

Dec13

Update this content.

More Than a Name

09/12/19 10:16:05 AM

Dec9

Rabbi Boris Dolin

Walking around with a name like Boris has gotten me in a lot of trouble.  Even in the US, a country with a diversity of people and an equal diversity of names, my name always stood out.  Upon hearing my name, people would often assume that I was born in Russia and was fluent in Russian.  Even after studying the language in University and learning (if nothing else) to say clearly “Really, I do not speak Russian well,” not everyone was convinced.  I was Russian, whether I liked it or not.

When my family moved to a new city and we were registering for school, I had the opportunity to change my name and choose something more common.  I nearly did, but I think my life might have been very different if I had done so.  Upon reflection I know that this name also carried with it something more meaningful than the sounds of its letters.  My name also connected me with the memory of my grandfather, who was born in Lithuania, and was a strong and visible reminder of my heritage, my ancestors and my Jewish roots.  There was no running away from this part of my past and identity, and in some ways I think my name might have even been part of what inspired me to later become a rabbi.  Above all, I am glad I held on to Boris.

The power of names figures prominently in this week’s parsha.  Preparing to meet his brother Esau, we read how the patriarch Jacob has a wrestling match with an angel of God, and receives a new name because of this life changing experience.  The angel tells him: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed”(Gen. 32:29).  This name change is more than simply a change in letters, it is a profound message about Jacob’s growth and his purpose in life.  According to the Torah, Jacob was named from “ekev,” heel, because his life began holding onto his brother’s foot, a prediction to the sibling rivalry and challenges in their family, much of which was instigated by Jacob himself.  But now, after wrestling with the angel, Jacob becomes Yisrael, a “God wrestler,” a name which signifies maturity and the growth that has taken place in Jacob’s life. No matter how we look at it, after he receives his new name, Jacob is no longer the same.

Yet it is strange that even after this profound and life changing experience, the Torah again refers to our patriarch as Jacob: “So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (32:31).   Why describe such an incredible experience, so specifically describe the origin of this new name, and then use the old name again?

This is an important message about the ways that we are changed by the experiences in our lives, and how we need to find a way to confront our past even as we tread new paths.  Even as we undergo these changes, whether it is moving to a new city, leaving an old partner or searching for a new one, or converting to a new faith, we can never fully leave our old selves behind.  We try our best to create a new life, to move on from the experiences of the past, and often we can be quite successful in this task.  What we might gain from these changes are an entirely new way of looking at the world, and a new understanding of what is important in our lives.  But our past, and the “names” we once had will always be part of who we are.  The challenge is to find the best way to hold onto them even as we leave them behind.

Later in the Torah we read Balaam’s blessing to the Jewish community, the same one with which we open our morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael”.  This blessing to the Jewish people is offered using both of Jacob’s names:  “How good are your tents oh Jacob, your dwellings oh Israel”(Numbers 24.5).  This choice of both names is quite purposeful.

As Jews we take pride our name as Israel “wrestlers with God”, but we also remember what came before we had this name.  The people Israel, the name Israel, was once simply “Jacob”, a child wandering and trying to make sense of his family and his life.  And even as Jacob has grown into a new and more spiritually strong leader, into Israel,  his can never separate himself from his former name.

The same is true with us.  We will always have regrets about who we were or what has happened in our lives, and unfortunately there is no way to ever clear our past fully from all the pain and challenges which we have experienced.  Yet if we can see these “names” as instead stepping stones to better place, as opportunities for growth and learning, then we can more readily move ahead .  It may be difficult to reach this place of acceptance, and we may not be there yet, but we know that the most profound change is possible if we give it time.

“Have regard for your name,” writes Ben Sira, “since it will remain for you longer than many stores of gold.”

Even if we don’t have much that is for sure in this world, we have our names.  So let’s hold onto them with pride.

Sat, January 25 2020 28 Tevet 5780