Parsha Vayishlach: Re-naming Ourselves

| parsha reflection |

This week’s parsha, or weekly Torah portion, is Vayishlach, which means “and he sent.” In this parsha, Jacob sends messengers to his estranged brother Esau because he wants to reconcile. The messengers return with the terrifying news that Esau will soon arrive with four hundred men, and that Jacob has reason to be worried. Jacob takes various precautions in an attempt to protect his camp.

Later that night, an angel or supernatural being appears and Jacob fights with him; not only does he win the fight, but the angel tells him that as a result of his victory, he is being given a new name, Israel. Interpretations of the meaning of his name, “Israel,” range from “he who prevails over the Divine” to “he who wrestles with G-d.” All the definitions involve a person fighting with G-d. The next day, the two brothers meet, and their meeting does involve reconciliation, including a big hug. The rest of the portion focuses on various happenings in Jacob/Israel’s family.

The best-known part of this parsha is Jacob’s fight with the angel and consequent re-naming. People tend to focus on the meaning of the name Israel itself, not on the importance of the re-naming process. Yet when I was pondering this portion, I found myself reflecting on the value of symbolic re-naming or re-defining of self after surviving a challenging experience. In other words, what Jacob’s re-naming may underscore is that there is great value in consciously noting development and change, rather than viewing oneself as having a fixed self or way of being in the world. How often have I managed to survive a difficult period and then moved on with my life without taking stock? Why don’t I note what I have accomplished and how I have shifted or grown in subtle ways?

At different points throughout my life, I have experienced frustration or even despair that I am not growing, yet this is often because I have simply overlooked my growth. For example, after starting a new job a few months ago, I immediately began to feel very anxious; the transition was not easy. Five years before this new job, when I started my first teaching job, I had also found the transition very challenging, and ended up developing anxiety attacks. When I began to feel anxious a few moths ago, I worried if I had not grown or developed in the “coping with transition” department, despite the conscious effort I have made to develop those skills. Yet what has become clear is that in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, my ability to adjust to new challenges, and specifically to this new job, with less anxiety, is better developed than it used to be. I have taken comfort in the awesome quote “Be not afraid of growing slowly, but only of standing still.” This awareness, this noting of changes in my response to stress, has helped me continue to grow in my understanding of myself as a work-in-progress, rather than a stagnant or deficient person.

This parsha provides one creative approach to noting how we are shifting in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. What if, after overcoming a challenge of any kind, we offered ourselves commemorative new names, such as “one who gets through transition periods through hell or high water,” or “one who never gives up even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles,” or “one who is slow to anger and quick to forgive”?

What would our lives be like if we worked on observing the present moment, and took a strengths-based approach to our observations by offering up new names for ourselves throughout our lives? My kavanah, or intention, is to ask ourselves in which ways we can re-name ourselves to reflect movement and shifting in our lives and selves, in order to help us grow towards a more flexible, compassionate acceptance and appreciation of ourselves and others.