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Parashat Vayishlach 5780 — 12/14/2019

Parashat Vayishlach 5780 — 12/14/2019

Bereishit 32:4-36:43

L’ilui nishmat Maria Smallow on her 5th Yahrzeit


Then Gd said to him, “Your name is Ya’akov. Your name shall not be called Ya’akov any more; rather Yisrael shall be your name” (35:10).

In the case of Avraham we are told that his name would not be Avram any more, but Avraham, and indeed, halachah forbids us from using the name Avram to refer to our forefather (unless we are quoting verses or relating incidents that happened before his name change). With Ya’akov/Israel, however, Scripture (including the Prophets and Writings) and the Rabbinic literature blithely go ahead and use both names to refer to our forefather, seemingly indiscriminately. Why are the two Patriarchs treated differently? (A related question is why does Yitzchak have no name change at all? Didn’t he go through profound transformations, especially at the Akeidah? We will not deal with this question here – Rabbi Google will surely have some answers.)

Or haChaim points out two somewhat technical reasons from the verses. First, in Avraham’s case his new name contained his old name. To go from Avram to Avraham one simply adds a hei (“H”). This is simply an enhancement of the original name. When we say “Avraham” we are referring to “Avram” as well in an implicit way. Avraham’s name change reflected an elevation in status, but it was a quantitative change, as it were, rather than a qualitative change. Referring to him as “Avram” is putting him back to a lower level, and this is forbidden – it is falsehood. In Ya’akov’s case, his new name, Yisrael, differs qualitatively from his old name, and linguistically it is not contained in it. Both names, therefore, can continue to be used.

This dichotomy is reflected in the verses themselves. Our verse begins with the statement, “Your name is Ya’akov.” This, as it were, cements the name Ya’akov as a legitimate way to refer to the Patriarch. The statement, “Your name shall not be called Ya’akov any more…” then is read as, “Your name shall not be called only Ya’akov any more, rather Yisrael shall also be your name.” There is no such locution for Avraham; hence Avraham is exclusively used in place of Avram.

All this is well and good, but we understand that there must be a deeper meaning behind these name changes. What is that deeper meaning? Why did Gd and the Torah treat the two name changes differently? Or haChaim writes:

It would seem that there is a good reason for this, one that fits with the well-known fact that people’s names are not random, but are the essential names of their souls. This idea is alluded to in a verse (Tehillim 46:9) that states that Hashem placed “shamos” (devastations) in the land, which the Sages expound (Berachos 7b) to teach that Hashem placed “sheimos” (names) in the land, meaning that a person’s name is assigned by Gd Himself and reflects one’s essential nature. Now, in Ya’akov’s case, the name “Ya’akov” was his original “name of the soul,” since it was the name he was given at birth. Therefore, although he later acquired an additional level of soul, a spirit of the Divine called “Yisrael,” this did not cause him to lose the first and basic [soul] that he began with. And thus, the first level of soul as well as the second existed within Ya’akov simultaneously; therefore, he could be called “Ya’akov,” for it was not proper that his original name should be uprooted entirely. (Artscroll’s translation and elucidation, my bold)

Artscroll comments: “Elsewhere, Or HaChaim explains that Hashem inspires parents to give their child the very name by which Hashem calls the child’s soul in the Heavenly spheres. Thus, a name reflects the depths of a person’s spiritual nature.”

We have already seen on a number of occasions that Torah describes itself as Gd’s conversation with Himself, which Moshe Rabbeinu was able to listen in on. According to the Zohar, the essential vibratory qualities that underlie creation are cognizable as the sounds of human speech – in particular the sounds and the semantics of Biblical Hebrew. This idea has its roots in the Biblical story of Adam’s naming of all the creatures. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name (Gen 2:19). In other words, the Hebrew name captures the essence of the thing (be it a living creature or anything else). Of course Adam and Moshe Rabbeinu saw on a level of clarity that was unmatched, due to the perfection of their nervous systems.

This name-essence relationship holds for individual human beings as well. Each of us is given a name by our parents (usually), and according to Or haChaim and the Midrash referred to by the Artscroll comment, this name is the name Gd has assigned to the soul that has come down into that particular body. I can attest from my own experience that parents do get an uncanny sense of what to name their children. And the Ashkenazi custom of naming children in honor of deceased relatives may be a reflection of the fact that our children carry our essences, and our missions, down through the generations. It also means that when one feels that one’s life has become transformed that one may take a new name, either as a replacement or as an addition. A very dear friend of mine did this in her mid-50’s, when she knew that she was so different from her “old” self that her given name was no longer suitable.

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet. Maybe in other times and in other languages, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Hebrew is different. In Hebrew the name is the essence. In Hebrew, “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayislach

Vayishlach Audio Recording

I felt great joy listening to Rabbi Michael Slavin recite this parshah and I felt he was feeling similar joy.

Joy is a sign of Teshuvah, return to the One who/which is all Joy, all Love, Total Balance, Total Integration.
“Vayishlach” means “and he sent”: Jacob sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau to let Esau know he was Esau’s servant and was bearing gifts. To send angels as one’s messengers demonstrates a considerable rise in the direction of Return to Oneness.

There are two major events in this parshah, each one showing a type of integration of stillness and activity, of partiality and totality.

First, Jacob wrestles with a man who then seems to be an angel and perhaps is Gd, although many commentators consider the wrestling a wrestling within himself to overcome his fears, his lower human self and to rise to the level where he acts from a higher level of his personality, one that is more heavenly, more divine, more Gdly.

When Jacob wrestles with someone in the night, the Hebrew says: Genesis, XXXII, 25, that it was a man, but in Genesis XXXII, 29, the man says, (Soncino Press, Pentateuch, Rabbi Hertz translation), “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but ‘Israel’”; for thou hast striven with Gd and with men, and hast prevailed.” From this, we get the higher sense: the man is in some way a representative of Gd, perhaps Gd Himself.

Personally, I feel the important point here is that we can overcome our inertia, our lower self and rise to Teshuvah, return to Oneness, Totality. However far Jacob rose in this event, commentators differ and we can differ but the event is an expression within Torah and therefore within Gd so reading it can enliven greater ability within us to live and act as Totality, not merely as an impulse of Totality.

Jacob says of this experience “I have seen Gd face-to-face and lived” though there are those who translate as “I have seen an angel of Gd face-to-face and lived.”

Jacob names the place “Peniel”: Face of God. “Pen” means “face” and “El” means “Gd”. So Jacob felt he wrestled with Gd, not just a man, or an angel. “Wrestling” we can interpret as “clinging,” so first Gd clings to Jacob, then Jacob clings to Gd.

This is encouraging, that however lost we feel, Gd may at any time cling to us and draw us to him, and we can cling to Him, to Totality, and go beyond loss, confusion, fear and return to Total Awareness, Love, Joy, Confidence, Nothing left out.

Intriguingly, by clinging to Jacob, Gd causes Jacob, the “quiet man who sits in tents”, to strive, to becomes an active man, “one who strives with Gd and with men,” to become like his brother Esau, a man of the fields — although perhaps at a much higher level of activity since we do not see anything in Torah that speaks about Gd speaking or clinging to Esau.

Second, when Esau and Jacob finally meet, Jacob prostrates before Esau seven times and Esau embraces him and kisses him wholeheartedly: they part on good terms. As with everything in life, and seemingly Torah too, there are those who say Esau’s kiss was not wholehearted but the succeeding conversation in which they speak to each other as loving brothers seems to support the wholehearted view.

In these two events we see integration of the opposites that Jacob and Esau are often treated as representing (although these interpretations avoid the much they have in common, as all humans must):
Jacob, representing silence, in the direction of “Be still and know that I am Gd” (Psalm 46) and Esau symbolizing striving as in a different translation of this phrase: “Cease striving and know that I am Gd”. Yet the silence bows down to the activity and the activity embraces the silence and we have two brothers, one family.

So can we all do by letting our silence bow to our activity through prayer and other good actions and letting our actions embrace our silence by pausing routinely from action to let our activity settle into silence – and eventually find that the two are one, active silence, silent activity.

Baruch HaShem