1997With the recognition that, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has popularized, "Let my people know" is both a right and a responsibility, we thought that this inaugural-collaborative D'var Torah was a rightly responsible, and pretty neat undertaking. Our tradition employs a telling phrase for one who is lettered and a scholar. The term is "Talmid Chacham" and means much more that erudite. A "talmid" is a student and a "chacham" is a person of wisdom and teaching.
What a "Shame!"
Our endeavor is born from this fundamental recognition that every teacher has to be a student and every student has to be a teacher. In that spirit, we are proud to initiate what we call "Du"vrei Torah, as it is born out of the joint searching and struggling of the two of us [the Talmud uses the Aramaic form "du" for "two"]. And doesn't our Talmud teach us the Jewish version of Patrick Henry: "Oh Chavruta, Oh Mee-Two-Ta"..."Give me a study partner or give me death!?"
Parashat Vayishlach finds Ya'akov approaching the borders of Eretz Canaan (Israel) on his return from Padan Aram, and his Uncle Lavan's home. Ya'akov is overcome with fear and anxiety over the imminent reunion with his brother Eisav. If you recall, Ya'akov had left home thirty-four years earlier fleeing from Eisav, after he received the latter's b'rachot (blessings). Now after the birth of Yosef, the time had come return home, which of course meant confronting his angry brother on his way.
After sending flocks of his ahead as tribute to appease Eisav and placing his family and possessions on the other side of a stream called the Yabbok for safety, Ya'akov was left alone for one night which he spent wrestling with a "man" until the break of dawn. This strange man, whom the Rabbi's explain to be an angel, breaks the stalemate with Ya'akov by offering Ya'akov a blessing, revealing that no longer will Ya'akov be his name but rather Yisroel. The angel did not have the authority to rename Ya'akov, nor was the name change to take effect immediately. The angel merely divulged to Ya'akov what G-d himself would do later (35:15).
When G-d does get around to bestowing the name Yisroel upon Ya'akov, the phraseology used mirrors that of another name change that we read only a few weeks ago in Lech Lecha where Avram becomes Avraham.
Although the formula is the same in both cases, there is a dramatic difference which must be addressed. The Talmud teaches us that, after Avram's name change, it is a violation of a principle of the Torah to revert back to calling him by that original name (B'rachot 13a).
Whereas with Ya'akov, we find no such principle. In fact, even the Torah does not abandon the name, using both Yisroel and Ya'akov (though not interchangeably).
This leads us to the question then, what exactly is in a name? Obviously assigning names holds some cosmic significance since giving names to all the creatures on the earth is the first recorded activity of man (B'reishit 2:20). The Or HaChaim teaches us that each name represents a soul. In this light (pun intended), the causative nature of a name is revealed: a name is a representation, a function, and carries with it personality traits. The Hebrew word for "name," spelled "Shin, Mem" contains the same letters as the Hebrew word for "put," suggesting that names place upon us the very nature of our beings.
Avraham received his new name after shedding the people and land from which he came and entering into a covenant with G-d. In a sense, Avraham had taken on a new life and a new purpose, breaking clean from the ways of his ancestors. We do not continue to use the name Avram because it is a throwback to a different man.
The names Ya'akov and Yisroel are not contradictory: they refer to a duality of personality within the same body. Ya'akov is timid and bookish, a student of tradition. When confronted with the angel though, he does not turn "heel," but rises above his natural inclination and confronts the crisis. He becomes Yisroel, the "struggler," demonstrating the strength necessary to protect his family and ensure the future of his lineage.
The name Yisroel can be interpreted as standing for the collective consciousness of the Jewish people passed to us from the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. In Hebrew Yisroel is spelled: Yud (for Yitzach and Ya'akov), Shin (for Sarah), Reish (for Rivkah and Rachel), Aleph (for Avraham), Lamed (for Leah). We are called the children of Israel; we are a link in this chain, both recipients and contributors to the wealth of our people.
How though are we to understand Ya'akov's seeming schizophrenia? How can two personalities exist in the same body? Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik gives us a beautiful insight into the matter. The nature of man is to be multifaceted and it is our challenge, not to be victims of these different personalities, but to use them. We need to know when to be Ya'akov and when to be Yisroel.
With regard to the magical Hillel work in which we are all involved, we must learn how to be campus chameleons: changing the shades of our personalities in order to create Jewish opportunities for students. Whether we are engaging, empowering, advising or teaching, our work is all about personal interaction. In order to make the most out of our relationships with students we must "be ourselves," but at the same time be conscious of the part of our "self" which we are presenting. If we strive to grasp this insight and incorporate the dual teaching of Ya'akov/Yisroel, then truly, and literally, we can affirm the words of our Sages that, "Ya'akov Avinu lo meit," father Jacob did not die(Ta' anit 5b): He will live in us all.
Talmud: The corpus of oral law codified in approx. 500 CE that encompasses the living record of the Jewish generational dialogue from 200 BCE through 500CE.
B'rachot: The first tractate of the 63 tractates of oral law.
Or HaChaim (1696-1743): Moroccan Biblical scholar and Kabbalist. Founded Yeshiva
OrHaChaim in Jerusalem in 1741. Published popular commentary to Torah.
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993): Preeminent teacher of the Jewish people for half a century. Religious philosopher, leading Halachist and Talmudist of the twentieth century. Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, New York.
Ta'anit: The twentieth tractate of the oral law.
Prepared by Rabbi David Gutterman and Geoffrey Menkowitz, Rutgers University Hillel.