From the Torah we learn that names can change


Rabbi Lizz Goldstein | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43.

This Shabbat marks Human Rights Day, and will kick off a year-long celebration of Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All, culminating in the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10.

When the United Nations declared the inalienable rights of all humanity in 1948, it was a watershed moment for the concepts of equality and justice across nations, castes, races, genders and religions. While we still have not reached the dawning of the Messianic Age, the framework the UNDR established helped to pave the way for many advancements in international laws that guarantee the right to education, fair pay, housing and safety for many more peoples than existed 74 years ago.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob wrestles with an ish — translated as “man” but often understood as “angel”. He seems to come out of nowhere, attack Jacob with no cause or end goal, and when he sees that he is not winning he says, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” (Genesis 32:27). So the ish — man or angel — blesses Jacob and bestows upon him a new name, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed,” (Genesis 32:29). Throughout the rest of the TaNaKh, Jacob is referred to fairly interchangeably with the name Israel.

Rabbi David Kimchi, also known as the RaDaK, teaches that the verse, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob,” in actually means, “Your name shall no longer be only Jacob,” and he gives some other textual references where simplistic negative phrasing is used to communicate a “not only” meaning. “This helps explain the many occasions later when this original name is applied to him,” RaDaK says, “as distinct from the name change of Avram to Avraham.”

It’s clear in this week’s parshah and in many parts of the Torah that names and identifiers matter. They communicate a deep sense of self and relationship with the Divine, and name changes in the Torah are treated with reverence, even when the new name is not used to the exclusion of the previous name, such as with Jacob/Israel.

We learn from this to respect pronouns and call people what they want to be calledMay we continue to work for the dignity, freedom and justice for all, until we reach a day when the dream of universal human rights is a reality.

Rabbi Lizz Goldstein serves Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge, Va.

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