The Text:
This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, includes a life-transforming event for Jacob. Jacob receives a new name of ‘Israel’. This renaming comes about from a specific event that Jacob engages in: wrestling with “an angel”.

Jacob, never shying from a challenge, receives his new title as a blessing. The angel says, (Genesis 32:29) “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” said the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed.”

The new name Israel signifies “struggle with the divine”, which Jacob not only conquered in his recent wrestling but additionally in his past life challenges and experiences.

The Implication:
Jacob’s struggle resulting in the blessing of a new name causes me to question names. Names can be given, acquired or created. Additionally names or titles can be gained to signify the work we have done. Our actions can either affirm or challenge others’ perceptions of who we are. Our actions can also further or diminish the validity of our given, acquired, or gained names/ titles.

When thinking about where our names come from I am reminded of a famous poem by Zelda, called “Each of us has a name.”

Each of us has a name
Given us by god,
And given us by our father and mother.

Each of us has a name
Given us by the way we stand,
Our way of smiling,
And the clothes we wear.

People perceive others based on the way that they portray themselves. Every action we take represents how we want to be perceived. We are constantly representing ourselves.

Do you do everything with a smile or a scowl? How do you treat others? When you are faced with conflict, how do you react? You continually are creating an evolving name for yourself.

There are titles that you can acquire from your choices, and your studies. You may have a title from your relationships to other people, such as someone’s partner, child, parent, etc. There are titles you can earn through study or career such as doctor, lawyer, educator, consultant, etc. All are representative of who you are and all act in a way where your name may be either honored or tarnished depending on your actions or the actions of others who you are in relation to your name.

When people describe you to strangers, what do they say? What are the adjectives added to your name, which gives people a sense of what type of person you are. How we act can change others perceptions of us. Do we act with kindness or bitterness?

The best part of our acquired titles is that we get to control them. We are the catalyst that people respond to. When we act positively with optimism, when we treat others justly, when we meet challenges head on as Jacob did, when we “put our best foot forward” that is when we act as a blessing.

When Jacob challenged the angel, he was rewarded with a name that described his actions, so others would know him as the one who overcame the challenges set before him. Are the actions you take appropriate representations of who you are and how you want to be perceived by others?

The Application:
November 20th was national Transgender Day Of Remembrance. It is an event where transgender individuals and allies gather to remember those lives lost to violence in the past year due to hatred against people expressing their gender variant identity. Names are read, lives are remembered, and hope is shared for future violence to end.

Every person controls and decides who they are and how they want to be perceived. This is the same for transgender individuals. Each of us have different identities. We should be able to chose what those identities are, and how we want to express ourselves.

In the same way that Jacob was given a new name, someone undergoing a gender change may chose a name that they feel is better representative of who they are.

People should both strive to, and be able to be their fullest selves at all times. I hope that one day we can all live in a world where people are not treated poorly simply because of the name and identity they have chosen and that is the best representation of the person they are.

We all should be held accountable by our names for how we represent ourselves. Simply, all people want to be respected for who they are, and want to live in the world where they are comfortable with the name they have created for themselves, without fear of bullying or violence towards them. When people react in a negative way towards others, they are only tarnishing their own name.

If we are each held accountable and responsible for our own actions then we should take time to reflect on how others may be perceiving us. If you took a moment to think about what others would say about you, do you think you would like what you hear? Are there ways in which you can continue to work towards making your name the most representative of the best person you want to be? How are you treating others? Is it the way you would want to be treated?

By focusing more on how we can honor our own name by acting in a meaningful way that is representative of the best person we can be, we will be striving to create a world where we are treating people the way we want to be treated. We will be able to gain the titles that fully represent ourselves and we will honor those names or titles we have already achieved and created for ourselves. And we too will be a blessing.

A prayer for those who have been harmed for simply being themselves….

For Trans Day of Remembrance
God, full of mercy, bless the souls of all who are in our hearts on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. We call to mind today young and old, of every race, faith, and gender experience who have died by violence. We remember those who have died because they would not hide, or did not pass, or did pass, or stood too proud. Today we name them: the reluctant activist, the fiery hurler of heels, the warrior for quiet truth, the one whom no one really knew. As many as we can name, there are thousands more whom we cannot, and for whom no Kaddish may have been said. We mourn their senseless deaths, and give thanks for their lives, for their teachings, and for the brief glow of each holy flame. We pray for the strength to carry on their legacy of vision, bravery, and love. And as we remember them, we remember with them the thousands more who have taken their own lives. We pray for resolve to root out the injustice, ignorance, and cruelty that grow despair. We pray, God, that those who perpetrate hate and violence will speedily come to understand that Your creation has many faces, many genders, and many holy expressions.

Blessed are they who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world. Blessed are You, God, in whom no light is extinguished.
Rabbi Reuben Zellman

Related Links:

My youtube video response to the recent lgbtq bullying and resulting suicides

What Keshet has to say about Transgender Day of Remembrance and resources!, Jewish resources for Trans Individuals and allies

Ingrid Michaelson’s song “Breakable”, a song that speaks to me about fragility of life

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