Monday, November 26, 2012

Shabbat Vayishlach
Genesis 32:4-36:43
17 Kislev 5771 / November 30- Dec. 1, 2012

by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Director of Immersive Learning

What is your name?” – Genesis 32:28

A good name is preferable to great riches…” – Proverbs 22:1

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find Jacob preparing for a potentially dangerous reunion with his bother Esau (whose birthright and paternal blessing Jacob had taken).  Jacob splits his camp into two (lest everyone should be wiped out upon an attack), and sends gifts via courier to his brother, hoping to quell Esau’s anticipated anger.

The night before the encounter, Jacob separated himself from his camp and his family.

“Jacob was left alone... and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” - Genesis 32:25

This is the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. 

At the end of the struggle, having been defeated, the angel wished to depart.  Jacob refused to let the angel leave until he gave Jacob a blessing.  The first thing the angel did was to ask a simple question to Jacob: "What is your name?"

It is important to remember that while this question may sound simple to us, to Jacob, it carried a lot of weight.  The last time Jacob was asked this question, he answered falsely, saying “I am Esau” in order to steal his brother’s paternal blessing from Isaac.  This time, Jacob redeems himself by answering the angel’s question truthfully, saying “I am Jacob.” 

At this point, the angel gives Jacob the new name “Israel” (which translates roughly to “having prevailed over the Divine”), blesses him, and departs.

The ancient rabbis have different opinions as to the role this angel played.  Some felt the angel was acting maliciously toward Jacob, as Jacob was physically injured in the scuffle, while others contend that the angel was not evil, as struggling with the angel and defeating him gave Jacob the confidence to face Esau the next day.  My personal take is that the angel and the accompanying struggle represent how we as human beings wrestle with our shortcomings and misdeeds, and our potential to overcome them.

Our Jewish tradition makes clear that having a “good name” – better understood as a “good reputation” – is priceless.  We find this, for example, in our texts (see the Proverbs quote above), as well as in our rabbinic commentaries, such as those admonishing people who speak badly about others (using negative speech commonly referred to as “lashon harah”).  Jacob was far from perfect in his actions, and as a result, his name and reputation at the time may not have been the greatest.  Jacob was deceptive towards his father and took advantage of his hungry brother.  Jacob’s reputation was certainly not one that Esau and his community would have found favorable. 

Jacob’s name change to Israel signified a rebirth of sorts.  It provided him with the confidence to confront his brother the next day as “a new man,” and with the ability to leave his misdeeds in the past and move forward.  It also provides us as Jews with the comfort of knowing that for millennia we have been known as the “Children of Israel,” rather than as the “Children of Jacob,” so that our reputation as a nation would not be tainted throughout the generations.

What is your name?  What does it mean to you?  Who are you named for, if anyone?

What associations do you hope others make when they hear your name? 

When it comes time for someone to offer your eulogy, what do you hope s/he will say?

We are all imperfect (despite what your mother may tell others about you).  We all have struggles, make mistakes, and take actions that have the ability to harm others and tarnish our own reputations.  But when given the opportunity to improve, like Jacob, we need to seize it.

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, so too do we have the ability to wrestle with our own misdeeds, to come clean, to prevail over our own shortcomings, and to build reputations befitting of those as blessed as we are.

This Shabbat, take some time to reflect on your name, on some of your own perceived shortcomings, on what you want others to be saying about you once you’re gone and the actions you can take to help make it so.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What’s in a Name?

Shabbat VaYetzeh
Bereishit 28:10 – 32:3
10 Kislev 5773 / Nov. 23 – 24, 2012

What’s in a Name?
by Rebecca Karp, East Coast Regional Director

Oftentimes, in my conversations about Moishe House, someone will ask me, “Why Moishe?” People come up with all kinds of explanations as to why our organization has its name, and in part, each of those explanations has some truth. The story that I have always heard, however, is that the parents of one of the original funders of Moishe House called him “Moishe” when he was little. Simple as that. Or is it?

For me, the labels we prescribe to something add context and meaning for each of us in a way that is unique to our experience. Not only that, but no two explanations of a particular event will ever be identical, nor should they be. We each bring our unique perspectives of the way we see the world to our experiences.

Much in the way that this funder named our organization, evoking a sense or a feeling or perhaps even a prescription for how Moishe House would look, feel and interact with the world, this parsha is full of people naming things – inanimate objects, children, land, etc.

Ya’akov, after falling asleep and dreaming of the angels going up and down a ladder and G~d declaring the prophecy of his descendants, wakes up and names the place Beit El, literally the Abode of G~d.

Once Ya’akov’s wives start having children, the naming abounds. Leah’s first son, Reuven, comes from Re’u Vein, meaning to see the difference. This works as prophecy and contrast to Ya’akov’s own relationship to his brother Esau and Reuven’s relationship to his brother Yosef.

Yehuda’s name means to be thankful or grateful to G~d – showing hoda’a, or gratitude. Dan comes from the root word meaning judgment; din. Issachar has the root for reward, sachar, and so on. Yosef, the firstborn son between Rachel and Ya’akov, comes from assaf, to add on, adding the number of sons Ya’akov had and adding a firstborn for Rachel.

After Laban and Ya’akov part ways, they meet again and make a pact. To call this pact into existence, they each gather stones into a mound and name the place Gal-eid. Gal means mound, while eid means witness. This mound, which serves as a witness between Laban and Ya’akov, is named just that.

The final naming of the parsha occurs after Laban and Ya’akov have parted and Ya’akov and his family go on their way. It is said that angels of G~d encountered them and when he sees the angels, Ya’akov says, “this is G~d’s camp”, or, in Hebrew, “machane elokim” and he names the place machana’im, G~d’s camp.

Not only do the names of Rachel and Leah’s sons provide insights into the minds and emotions of the mothers naming them, they also serve as prescriptions for how these men will/should behave throughout their lives. Names or labels have weight, carrying with them expectations and history.

If we look at the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs as the lifecycle of the birth of a nation, Israel, then this is about the time when “we” are learning to speak – we’re toddlers, if you will. Toddlers walk around, point to things and evoke them into being by pointing and calling out their title. “Tree” as they point excitedly to an oak. “Cup” as they take a sip from a vessel their mother handed them. “Sun” as they look up into the sky at the big round ball of light. “Hungry” as they rub their belly and look for something to eat. “Home” as they point to the house where they know they sleep, and their parents sleep as well. It is as if, only after uttering its title, do these things, emotions and places truly step into existence.

The beauty of this naming is that it can be unique for every individual. Moishe House can mean a place of strong social justice work, canvassing for human rights issues and educating about policy reform. Moishe House can mean a home where everyone is always welcome; there are cold drinks in the fridge and something to snack on in the pantry. Moishe House can mean weekly Torah study and the glow of the Shabbat candles every Friday night. And it can also mean various combinations of all of those things. We have the opportunity to call into being our own unique experiences with the “name” Moishe House.

As we go through our lives, may we feel both the responsibility of the prescription of things that are named for us and the freedom and power to create a name for ourselves. You may have been given a name, but it’s what you do with it that really matters.


Monday, November 12, 2012

An Evil Twin is Born

Parshat Toldot
Bereshit 25:19 – 28:9
3 Kislev 5773 / Nov. 16 – 17, 2012

An Evil Twin is Born
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I believe that this Parsha contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts. Here is the scene (Bereshit Chapter 25).

Esav, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esav wants some of that soup!

Esav: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!

Yaacov: You want my soup? Trade me your status as the first-born!

Esav: Well, I am going to die anywayso of what use to me is a birthright?

Esav swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esav came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite an issue!)And the rest is history – the children of Yaacov and the children of Esav become eternal archetypal enemies. Not so wonderful!

Growing up I always learned about Esav as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esav really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.

“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”

Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can sometimes feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Yaacov and Esav seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condemn a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.

So was Esav a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esav knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not an exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esav, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a G-d in the world, things seem to just happen.

Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Yaacov way” of looking at the world and an “Esav way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?

Un/fortunately, I think about these topics way to much ( and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.

This week, I feel bad for Esav. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esav’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this Parsha teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person.  As we see in the story of Esav, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.