Sermon - Parshat Vayishlach 2003 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum December 13, 2003
Yesterday, I was invited to Severn School in Severna Park to discuss our religious beliefs and practices. The school regularly invites different spiritual leaders to speak to the students and staff. I talked to two groups of 8th graders. After my speech and discussion, a girl approached me. She said, "Rabbi, My name is Vicky and I am the only Jewish girl in my class. I have to tell you that I am very uncomfortable now because of all the holiday celebrations. I see friends having parties, exchanging gifts, decorating their homes and doing other activities related to this time of year. I feel a little jealous and lonely." I answered her, "Vicky, I want you to understand one thing. It says in this week’s Torah portionVayishlach, that Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him the whole night. Then the man says, "Let me go." Jacob said, "I will not let you go before you bless me." The man said, "You will no longer be called Jacob. Your name is now Israel."
Why was a man fighting with him? Why was his name changed from Jacob/Yaakov to Yisrael? Everything looks very strange, and hard to understand. The rabbis tell us, if we follow Jewish mysticism, that there is an esoteric element behind the text. Jacob was in a state of mind of feeling great loneliness and sadness. In this state of mind, he was in a spiritual tug-of-war. He was uncomfortable in this situation. Someone tried to fight Yaakov, and then he (Yaakov) asked the man for a blessing. How is it that he would ask a blessing from someone who fought him? The nameYaakov represents someone who would go after someone (holding Esau’s heel in their mother’s womb in a state of darkness). When he found himself in a situation where he was overcome with darkness and loneliness, he wanted a blessing to help him get through his difficulties. The angel himself was limited in what he could do. He said to Yaakov, "Tell me your name." When the angel changed Yaakov’s name to Yisrael, he had a certain idea in mind. Yisrael means "Yashar El" – someone who has a straight connection with G-d. As long as you feel the name Yaakov (referring to the heel of a foot), you are after them and uncomfortable with them. You are in a state of darkness.
When we feel jealous of non-Jews, and we are after them, we are in a state of Yaakov, clinging to them. When we feel connected to our religion, and to G-d, we are Yisrael, we are strong. We, as a Jewish people throughout history have suffered persecution, as well as a lot of jealousy and envy from the other nations of the world. Yes, we are the minority, and we are only about 2% of the population.
However, we are the vanguard, the top people in so many areas. In the fields of law and medicine, we have the best mathematicians, physicists, and the most Nobel Prize winners. The truth of the matter is that the other nations of the world are jealous of us. Yet we should not feel uncomfortable with that. Quite the contrary, because we, as a people have, so many success stories there is no reason for us to envy others. With so many values and ethics, we can feel ourselves a paragon of excellence and they all should look up to us. We should feel good about who we are. We certainly should have high self-esteem.
If our friends and neighbors decorate their homes, have parties, exchange gifts, and put a lot of effort into enjoying their holiday, it should not bother us. We should bless them, and wish them the best. Yet we should feel very much self-confidence because we are the successful "people of the book." Many others follow our ethics and values. We are very special people. The fact that we are the minority and are so successful shows that we are special. We are role models. This is the message that the Torah tells us in this week’s Torah portion. The idea of our nation being called the nation of Yisrael (Israel) relates to our special and direct connection to G-d. We have Shabbat every week as well as our many Jewish holidays, festivals, customs and observances. We should understand that we are special and feel good about who we are.
May we all be blessed with great feelings of pride, joy and spirituality as we face the challenges of our daily lives. Amen.