What’s in a Name – Va’yishlah 5777

״בשם ה׳, אלוקי ישראל, מימיני מיכאל ומשמאלי גבריאל ומלפניי אוריאל ומאחורי רפאל ועל ראשי שכינת קל״                           “In the name of The Name, God of Israel – to my right Michael and to my left Gabriel and before my face Uriel and behind me Raphael and on my head the Dwelling of God”

The ever so simple and calming melody of this Jewish folk song never ceases to capture my imagination.  Many people utilize its caress in setting the mood for seudat shlishit or as a lullaby, softly rocking our children to sleep.  Yet hidden in the lyrics lies a deep truth of the world.  After all, a song is merely a story set to music, and “all the truth in the world is held in stories you know” (Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear).

This week we have the pleasure of reading one of my favorite stories found in Genesis, Jacob wrestling with an ‘angel.’  In order to engage with this tale, we first must understand a little about angels.  Many people throughout time have dedicated inexhaustible ponderings into the intricacies of the world in hopes of grasping the true definition of an angel.  The Torah itself muddles our search, placing stumbling blocks on the path to comprehension in the form of clever synonyms.  The heavenly beings in God’s service are referred to as men, cherubs, messengers, ministers, and more.  In places, our text goes as far as using different titles for what seem to be the same beings.

Despite all the confusion, titles and names hold a great power in the world.  In a loud and crowded room, our ears easily pick out the softest whisper of our name.  There is an unmistakable control a parent has over their child when they speak her name in full.  Therapy offers the wisdom that the act of naming our fears often gives us the power needed to begin their submission.  Even Dumbledore knows this truth, stating, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Pondering angelology, Rav Saadia Gaon (Egypt 882-942) explains that an angel is the manifestation of a singular will of God.  Much like Mitch Hedberg’s joke that kitchen appliances are labeled merely by the description of their primary function plus the suffix ‘er’ (blender, freezer, fryer, etc.), so too an angel is named by the will it is to carry out in the world plus the suffix ‘אל’ (el) – God.   For example, Raphael is God’s will to heal (refua meaning healing), Uriel is God’s will to bring light (Ur meaning light), and so on.  Therefore, to call an angel by its name is to state its essence – to know an angel’s title is to glimpse God’s will.

It is no surprise then that after wrestling all night, one not able to overcome the other, Jacob and his angelic assailant parrie a dialogue over names (Breishit 32:25-29).  Jacob demands a blessing and the angel replies by asking his name.  The angel then declares that Jacob’s totality is no longer defined by how he has up until now seen himself moving through the world – as he who grasps at heels.  Rather our forefather has gone through a metamorphosis and the angel deems him worthy of a new title – he who prevails in grappling with God and men.  

However, his newly granted title falls short in providing the self assurance needed as the sun rises on Esau’s rapid approach.  In a last effort, Jacob – still grasping the heel of the will of God with whom he has wrestled – inquires as to the angel’s name.  Perhaps with this knowledge, Jacob could once and for all name that with which he has battled so deeply.  With power over it, maybe then he would have the strength to accept for himself the new title already bestowed upon him.  The ‘man,’ however, refuses – saying, “You must not ask my name.  And he blessed him there” (Breishit 32:30).  

In the end, Jacob earns his hard fought blessing. Unfortunately, however, the Torah omits the angel’s parting benediction. Like getting lost in the encircling angels of our opening song, this hole in the story beckons to my imagination. Were I the angel, what blessing would I give to Jacob?

I pray that you have the courage to name your fears – bringing light to those things with which you wrestle on the deepest level.  And when the name of God’s will escapes, I bless you with the inner strength to let it go.  For they who assume the mantel of ‘Israel’ do not cling to heals, but prevail despite the struggle.  


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