Friday, November 15, 2013

A Name Change - A New Journey


As a rabbi, I’m blessed to be invited to be a part of some of the most meaningful and holy moments of people’s lives.  This week, I took part in a number of conversions as part of a Beit Din, (a Jewish ‘court’) a group of three rabbis who serve as witnesses and overseers to the conversions (the other two rabbis were my colleagues and friends Rabbi Michael Singer and Rabbi Leonard Zucker).  This week, we supervised the conversion of one of our young congregants, Franki Nasetti.  Let me wish a hearty mazal tov to Jon, Eve, and Danielle Nasetti as welcome Franki to the Tribe!  

After the children underwent conversion, we sat with two women in their 20’s who wished to convert.  As part of a conversion, we ask the conversion candidates to write essays about their journeys to Judaism, how the our tradition and way of life is more appropriate than their previous religion, how they identify to Israel, world Jewry, the local Jewish community, and their synagogue community, and more.  Learning about their journeys to our people truly inspired me.  Both came from religious Christian backgrounds and the journey has not been easy on their families, but they persevered and joined our people knowing that there are certainly struggles involved with being a Jew.  There were two moments in particular that moved me:  the first was when the conversion candidates read the Kabalat Ol Mitzvoth, the formal declaration that affirms their commitment to God’s mitzvoth.  During the declaration, one of the women’s voice cracked and tears came streaming down her face.  I could tell that there was so much emotion and feeling as she finally said these words.  It was the culmination of her journey, and her rebirth into a new person.  The Talmud says that someone who converts to Judaism is like a baby reborn.  Of course, newborns need names, so these women chose their own new names, and explained their choice to us with pride. 

At our Text Messages class this week, we read about the story of Yaakov and his name change.  First, off, let’s revisit the name Yaakov and see why he received this name.  In Genesis 25:26, we read about the birth of Yaakov and Esav:  “And after that his brother came out, and his hand was holding Esav’s heel, and he called his name Jacob.”  One interpretation for the name Yaakov is that it comes from the Hebrew word, ‘akev, which literally means ‘heel’.  In other words, he is known as a person who constantly nipping at the heels of others.  He is not thought of as a leader so he has to constantly grab for leadership.  Up until now, Yaakov lives in the shadow of his brother, and now, in our parashah, he is finally ready to confront this part of him.  After Yaakov struggles with the angel and prevails, the angel asks him, “What is your name?”  Of course, the angel knew his name, but, in my opinion, he was challenging Yaakov as if to say, “Who are you really deep down?  Have you changed along the way?  Are you ready to be someone different?”  Yaakov gives him a literal answer – “Yaakov”, but the angel tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Rashi comments: 

“It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through trickery (Akvah) and deceit, but with nobility and openness…”

We see here that Yaakov has not only had a name change, but a personality change and a change in destiny.  Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman, a modern Bible scholar whose commentary we use in our Text Message class, states,

“There is little character development in Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, or Rebekah, all of whom remain basically constant figures through the stories about them.  But Jacob changes, and the matter of deception is intimately related to that development.  As Esau points out, Jacob’s very name connotes deception:  to catch.  And Jacob starts out as a manipulator.  But Jacob is changed after his experience in Mesopotamia.  He has been the deceiver and the deceived…God blesses him in a remarkable etimology/etymology:  “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (yisra-el, understood here to mean ‘he struggles with God’) because you’ve struggled with God and with people and were able. 

Being a child of Israel, a Jew, is not easy.  Before someone converts to Judaism, before they become a member of Bnai Israel, we ask them:  are you sure you want to do this?  We have a long history of persecution.  You may be safe here and now, but we cannot guarantee that this will be the case in the future.  More than physical safety, being a Jew is also a great struggle – are you ready to begin this struggle?  In both cases, the candidates replied with confidence – Yes, we are ready! 
In our class, we debated the meaning of the pasuk of struggling WITH God.  Is it struggling with God, meaning against God, or struggling WITH God, meaning, together.  I think it is both – sometimes we struggle against God, and almost all the time we struggle together WITH God against adversity. 

The new Jews we brought into this world affirmed my belief in our vision statement: we journey, together, on a path to holiness.  This is what makes being a part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy congregation, and holy nation so meaningful and vital – we need to journey together because it helps us overcome the struggle. 

This is what it means to be a child of Israel – to embrace this struggle WITH God. 
My blessing for us all is that we do not why away from struggle, but embrace it.  That we continue to journey together because we seek a holy path.  My blessing is that we take on more mitzvoth because they tie us to God, and that we support each other through our journeys in life. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Baum