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Posts Tagged ‘Name changes’

The famous heroine who saved many slaves, Harriet Tubman, originally was named Araminta (Minty). At a key moment in her life, she changed her name to Harriet.  Some historians say this occurred when she decided to rescue herself from slavery. If true, this was a large contribution to her total identity change as she achieved freedom.  It was the identity connected to her life as an amazing heroine who, after gaining freedom, dedicated all of her work to freeing others still in slavery.  Harriet’s decision to change her name becomes connected to her life of impacting the world to benefit others.

In the Torah, name changes are tied to the new directions in the lives of Torah characters.  Abraham (Avraham) begins as Avram.  Once his covenant with God is in place, he becomes Abraham, which can be translated as “father of the people.”  His wife Sarai becomes Sarah.  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob, (Ya’akov) becomes Israel (Yisra’el).  The Torah presents God as the name changer.

Part of the story of Jacob’s name change is well known.  Jacob learns he is about to meet his brother, Esau, whose threats to his life is the reason he fled from his homeland.  He separates from the rest of his family, dealing with his fear of Esau.  Once alone, he wrestles with a man who somehow turns out to be representing God.  Jacob does not lose the fight, so this divine person presents a new name for him, Yisra’el(Israel), as the meaning is “struggling with God.”  However, his name does not actually change at this moment.

The Torah portion continues and Jacob experiences a number of difficult incidents, starting with his meeting with Esau.  He then deals with the rape of his daughter, Dinah, tries to find a way to handle it, and struggles with what two of his sons do in revenge for their sister. Finally, God tells Jacob to go to the place he began his journey when fleeing from his home so many years earlier, Beth El.  It is here that Jacob is told by God his name is now Yisra’el.  A question we can ask is, what is meant by this delay in his name change?

We can start with a commentary by Rashi, who states that the “man” who wrestled with Jacob was Esau’s ministering angel.  Therefore it was necessary for Jacob to be connecting directly with God for the name change to become real, and that would happen at Beth El, the place Jacob awoke to the presence of God when he began his life’s journey.  Nachmanides adds that Jacob’s second experience with God at Beth El might imply it is okay for him to be called either name, Jacob or Yisra’el.  This makes us look a bit deeper into the meanings of both names.

Jacob (Ya’akov) is related to the word akeiv, which means “heel.”  Esau and Jacob are twins, with Esau being born first.  Ya’akovimplies an attempt to catch the heel of Esau.  It is a prediction of Jacob’s overcoming of Esau via the inheritance from and blessing of their father.  Some rabbinic commentators also connect the name Ya’akovto the Hebrew word akavah, which can mean deceit, guile, or provocation.  Any or all of these words describe how Jacob got Esau to turn the right to the inheritance over to him as well as the trick Jacob played on Isaac to get his blessing.  All of these actions provoke Esau into his hatred of Jacob.

When Jacob flees from Canaan to escape Esau’s threat, he has his first true experience with God, and wakes up to God’s presence where he does not expect it.  However, he does not express full faith in God, but tries to strike a deal that his faith depends on God staying with him and protecting him (Genesis 28:20,21).  His life is filled with ups and downs, so it can be interpreted as a constant struggle with his faith in God.  Another way to interpret Jacob’s wrestling in this week’s Torah portion would be an internal conflict over how much to trust God, especially as he is about to reconnect with his aggressive brother.  Thus we get the translation of Yisra’elas “struggling with God.”

However, there are other ways to translate that name.  Using the same consonants but changing the vowels, you could pronounce the name as Yashar El, which means the one who God makes straight.  After the struggle with God (or the divine representative) Jacob has a peaceful yet somewhat struggling meeting with Esau.  Following that, he tries to deal with Dinah’s situation and the aftermath in a way he thinks is best.  He is angry over some of the results.  Perhaps God, at Beth El, is using the name to try and straighten out how Jacob deals with difficulties.  At least Jacob has straightened out by no longer using deceit to achieve what he wants.

There is yet a third way to interpret the consonant letters that are in the name Yisra’el, it could be read as yesh ra El, “there he saw God.”  At Beth El, the Torah states that God appears to Jacob (Genesis 35:9).  God then confirms the change of his name to Yisra’eland also shares one of God’s names, El Shaddai.

By simply re pronouncing the consonants of the name Yisra’el with different vowels, the name takes on 3 meanings that all apply to the path of Jacob’s life.  As someone who gains what he feels he deserves by deceit and guile, he launches a complex path.  While he acknowledges God’s presence, he struggles with the actual impact God has on dealing with the difficult moments he experiences.  Perhaps he is wrestling with his personal expectations.   By reaching a point of belief in the proper risk to take; God (and/or his faith in God) straightens his path.  Then, when something amazingly impactful happens, he ends up “seeing” God.  It is a brief moment, but it provides strength in dealing with life’s struggles. Jacob finally accepts the additional name that will define not only his future, but of all his descendants – us.

Yisra’el becomes the name for all of the Jewish people.  Its various potential meanings represents what all of us end up experiencing:  struggles, wondering about our faith in God, trying to counter our incidents of deceit including repentance for them, straightening our path in life, and then seeing – for a moment – something divine that inspires us.  Most important, we actually decide on whether or not we accept the name.  Yisra’el is not just the label for our people.  It represents the reality of complexity in each of our lives.  God supplies the name, but we choose where to take that reality.  May our choices, despite life’s difficulty, result in moral commitment like Harriet Tubman.

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