What’s in a name, famously asked Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?
One perspective is provided by perhaps the most enigmatic episode in the entire Torah as Jacob has a lone encounter and wrestles with an angel.
Having revealed his own identity, Jacob asks to know the name of his assailant, but is answered only cryptically: ‘Why do you now ask my name?’
Rashi explains the angel’s response. There is no point asking my name, because we do not have fixed ones, they change entirely according to the mission on which we are sent.
Compare this to the message implied by Jacob’s name being changed firstly by the angel and subsequently by God.
Jacob is told that he will no longer be called by his original name because it connotes stealth and guile and rather he should be ‘Israel’ to reflect his intrinsically princely stature.
At the same time, this entire sedra provides a stark contrast between the missions of Jacob and Esau.
At one time Esau is a friend, at the next a sworn enemy. He wants everyone to be the same as him, but he does not know who he truly is.
On the other hand, Jacob is blessed by God to become Israel, the father of a nation destined to follow a straight path, faithful to its task, unmoved by fear or persecution.
Throughout history Jews have been despised by others who are confused as to their own purpose, because we know why we are here and refuse to relinquish our vocation and our calling.
And so they challenge us and attack us and sometimes, as the angel did to Jacob, they even manage to injure us, but ultimately they never prevail as the name ‘Israel’ implies, to struggle and to be successful.
And so Jacob’s response to Esau should be ours too. When Esau offered to go with his brother, Jacob demurred and said: ‘You go, go before us according to your way and we’ll journey at our own pace.’
Reading between the lines you get a sense of newly gained confidence on the part of our ancestor, clear as to his mission and unafraid of those who seek to distract him.
John F Kennedy may have been correct when he said, ‘Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.’
However, what is most important of all is to never forget your own name.
Rabbi Alex Chapper is the Community Rabbi of Borehamwood & Elstree Synagogue and the Children’s Rabbi www.childrensrabbi.com