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What's in a Name? In This Case, Quite a Lot!

November 22, 2007 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman, JE Feature
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VAYISHLACH, Genesis 37:1-40:23

It's a very interesting fact. The street signs in Israel are chock-full of some of the most seminal events and personalities in the 3,500-year drama of the Jewish journey. Indeed, one could learn so much of the unfolding drama of our people by reflecting on what is recorded on them. Stroll along Jerusalem's King George Street, and you learn a most piquant lesson.

Did you ever really look at the street sign? It reads: King George the Fifth Street (King George V).

Kitty Kelly's The Royals describes the scene. The year was 1917, and England was still engaged in what was then called, "the Great War." King George, scion of a German dynasty, convened his courtiers and said, "We have to change our last name."

He was, after all, the representative of the civilized world fighting the Germans, and he himself had a German last name. It proved a rather sticky public-relations dilemma, I dare say.

Popularly known as the Hanovers, the official last name of the current British dynasty was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Can you imagine being a symbolic representative of freedom, liberty and democracy with a German last name in 1917? King George V and his court decided on their new last name -- it would be Windsor. A wonderfully evocative name -- à la Windsor Castle. It had a mellifluous British-sounding ring, although it was fictional.

'Striven With the Divine'
We, the Jewish people, share a name, but this name is not humanly contrived; rather, it is endowed from on high. It is a name assigned more for the purpose of its meaning than for the panache of its marketing.

Here is the scene as described in our shared sacred book, the Torah. The night before Jacob reunites with his brother, Esau, he crosses the Yabok River alone and has an encounter -- an altercation with a "man."

Our sages suggest that this pugilistic man was the "angel of Esau." They struggle and wrestle until the morning, and though limping, ultimately Jacob prevails. The rabbis view this episode as a snapshot of Jewish struggles in the world.

This was not an isolated incident, but a scenario that plays itself out throughout the ongoing journey of the Jewish people.

As a result of victory, Jacob's name is changed.

"No longer will you be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man, and have overcome." The Jewish people are now called Yisrael -- Israel.

Why? Because we struggle.

Not only do we struggle with God and as God's partner, but we also struggle with the world.

In his Five Addresses, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick comments: "Since our father Abraham, we have done things which should logically have led to the worst kind of disaster. We have always been in the category of, 'All the world is on one side and he is on the other side.' ... Yet despite this we succeeded in existing by virtue of heroism. ... If you asked me who is a Jew, I would answer, one who lives a life of heroism. ... To live a life of heroism, to fight often alone, isolated, in the dark of night infested with horrors; to struggle against a mystical adversary as, 'And Jacob was left alone; and wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day,' represents the content of Judaism."

We share a name bestowed by the emissary of God, and later, ratified by God. Our name represents our mission and purpose in and to the world. Of the 192 nations that comprise the United Nations, we are the only one named after a purpose.

Leading a life where Jewish values and dreams are primary is heroic; taking responsibility for each other, in this overly egocentric and narcissistic age, is heroic. But that is what it means to be Yisrael, Israel.

Rabbi David Gutterman is rabbi of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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