Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What's In a Name? Everything.

The Jewish people are called the B’nei Yisrael – the Children of Israel. Where did we get this name from? From this week’s parshah.
After Ya’akov spends an entire night wrestling with the angel of Eisav, the angel decides that it’s time to go. Only Ya’akov doesn’t want to let him: “I won’t let you go until you bless me,” he tells the angel.

“What’s your name,” the angel asks him.

“What’s my name? You don’t even know who I am? Don’t you think you should have asked me that before we had this whole fight?”

“What’s your name?”

Sigh. “Ya’akov.”

The angel replied: “No it’s not – at least not anymore. From now on, your name will be Yisrael, ki sarita im elokim v’im anashim va’tuchal, “for you have striven with God and with man and have prevailed.” The word sarita is the root of the word Yisrael that identifies us as a people. What does it really mean? What does the word say about us?

Let’s look at two interpretations and see what we can learn from them. Rashi teaches that the word sarita comes from the word serarah, ruling and leading. Ya’akov’s old name implied sense of weakness, shame and deceit. Yisrael implies a sense of power, strength and pride. Radak explains the word in terms of struggle. Yisrael is a person who is willing to struggle – to work hard to overcome obstacles to accomplish his goals.

Both of these explanations tell us a great deal about the Jewish people and especially the State of Israel. We are a people who are willing to work hard and overcome challenges to build a land and recreate the Jewish people. At the same time, we stand before the world with a sense of pride. Israel has made tremendous strides during the past sixty years, and for all our faults, we have a lot to be proud of.

This asks a lot of each of us as members of the Children of Israel. Do you face challenges or run away from them? Do you stand up as a Jew with a sense of pride and accomplishment? Or do you hide your Jewish identity from the people around you?

Only you can answer those questions.