William Hamilton

Imitation is not always flattery

“The culture in this part of the world is not Starbucks” suggested a presenter to our ADL Counterterrorism Seminar. In the Mideast the role of rumor, the arc of time, and the function of honor, are very different than they are in the Midwest. Our presenter concluded, “We don’t have to surrender our values for theirs, but it behooves us to understand what matters to others and why.”  So too self-understanding, knowing who we are and what we value, is no less important.

This week’s portion of Torah brings everyone back together.  Joseph and his brothers reunite.  Their father Jacob experiences a reassuring promise from God that venturing down to Egypt is permissible.  “God spoke to Israel in a night vision, saying ‘Jacob! Jacob!’ ‘I am here’ he replied” (Gen. 46:2).  Why does God revert to Jacob’s pre-Israel name here?  Yes, Jacob is often called ‘Jacob’ long after earning the name ‘Israel’, but rarely do we see both names used in the same verse and even more seldom is a biblical figure’s name repeated for emphasis. 

Throughout his early life Jacob wanted to be like Esau who possessed the opposite traits and skills.  Jacob was born grasping Esau’s ankle.  He later gained his birthright.  Then he acquired Esau’s blessing by way of imitation.  Jacob overcomes this mimetic desire only after wrestling through the night to earn his identity as Israel.  Yet Jacob still fears the unknown.  When God calls Israel ‘Jacob! Jacob!’ God is emphasizing that the Jacob who used to be uncomfortable in his own skin need not try to pretend to be someone else.  Attachment to God instead of grasping to become the person he is not, is how Jacob’s descent to Egypt will realize the Divine design of establishing the People of Israel who will experience the Exodus centuries later.  This also explains Jacob’s transparent candor when he meets Pharaoh (Gen 47:9) and Joseph’s brother’s refusal to deceive the Egyptian leader when he inquires about their livelihood (Gen. 46:33-47:3).

Imitation is not always a form of flattery.  Some cultures prize above all else, being true to thine own self.  But being part of our the House of Israel, encourages self-attachment rather than self-expression.  When we attach ourselves to One who is much vaster than ourselves, we prove capable of surpassing ourselves and optimizing our potential. 

May we find, as did Jacob, that the quest for authenticity is warmly realized with Divine companionship.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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