November 2019, Parshat Vayishlach

Dear Friends,

Names play a large part in shaping our identity and helping us to belong and understand our history. Our last names denote belonging to our families. First names represent the moniker we are called. I am named after my grandfather, my mother’s father, and through association with my name, I think of him often.
Mushka and I thought for many hours together when naming each of our children and then some more, once they were born, to make sure the names suited the child. In fact, our Sages tell us that parents are endowed with Divine Wisdom (Ruach Hakodesh) when they name their children.

In this week’s Parsha we come to understand how it is that the Jewish people are known as B’Nei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Have you ever considered that we are not called B’Nei Avraham or B’Nei Rachel? While our forefathers and matriarchs shaped our identity, it seems that Yaakov was the most integral in shaping our final Jewish identity.

The Torah this week describes how Yaakov and his brother Esav meet for the first time in many years. Their reunion was not without tension. For many years Esav had harboured deadly intentions against this brother Yaakov, who he believed had stolen his firstborn blessing. In the lead up this potentially explosive meeting, Yaakov begins to move his family across the Yabbok river to safety away from any potential harm.

During his final crossing of the river, Yaakov encounters an angel and the Torah records that they wrestle intensely all night. The Sages record that this angel was the divine spirit of Esav and that the meeting of the brothers in this way, represented both a physical and spiritual dimension, relating to whose ideological stream would prevail on earth. Would it be Esav? Or would it be Yaakov?

As the sun begins to rise, the angel realizes that Yaakov has prevailed in the divine struggle and commands him to let him go. Yaakov refuses to release him until the angel promises to bless him. The angel blesses him by telling Yaakov that he shall no longer be known as Yaakov, but by the name ‘Yisrael’ as he has wrestled with divine beings and prevailed.

While this story can be read as a nice little tale showing how powerful our forefather Yaakov was, it has a much deeper meaning.

When Yaakov struggles with the angel there was no guarantee that he would triumph. The Torah tells us that he even received an injury that caused him to limp for the rest of his life. This struggle characterised a physical representation of all the things that Yaakov was struggling with.

Each of us goes through our own struggles; some of them can weigh us down and cause us to become bogged down in the complexity of our issues. However, Yaakov, our forefather, provides us with a blueprint for management. He struggles and struggles against the battles that threaten to overwhelm him and he prevails over them. Against all odds he overcomes adversity.

That is why we, as the people of Israel, B’Nei Yisrael, bear his name. As a reminder that each person has their own struggles and battles, but we have the power within ourselves to overcome them. In a way, Yaakov lends us this power to us through the use of his new name, Israel. Just as he was able to overcome the trials and tribulations that came his way, so too we as the People of Israel have that inherent power inside us as a nation too.

I want to end this Dvar Torah with an important message relating to what we can do as a community, to harness our inherent power for good. This Sunday, 25 November 2018, is the International Day for Elimination of Violence of Women and marks the beginning of a campaign called the “16 days of activism” against gender based violence. Violence against women is a major public health issues both in Australia and overseas.  In Australia alone, 61 women have already lost their lives this year due to family violence.

Enough is enough.

Speak out and loud wherever possible to call out this behaviour. Every person can do something to challenge this violence. Each us can commit to speaking out against disrespect of women. This way, we can work cohesively to change the reality on the ground and live up to our name, B’Nei Yisrael, as we struggle against this scourge of family violence.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Gabi