As the mysterious Doctor Who (voice in this iteration by Matt Smith) once taught:
“We all change, when you think about it, we’re all different people; all through our lives, and that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear.”
Five years ago this week, I interviewed to become Rabbi of UJA Federation of New York. I arrived a bit early, nervous and excited. To calm my nerves, I treated myself to a particularly nice cup of coffee. I walked along the street, admiring the tall buildings I hadn’t seen in years, sipping my expensive beverage, and almost tripped over the woman on the corner asking for help. Here I was, eyes pointed high, walking to an interview for a job as a rabbi with one of the largest nonprofits in the world, and nearly beneath my feet was a person struggling whom I had barely noticed.
There were two shocks of recognition. The first, of course, was the shock of recognition at the person I had nearly tripped over. There was no one and then, suddenly, there had been someone there all along. The second shock of recognition was inward, that I could be headed toward an interview to ask for the responsibility of supporting others and simultaneously not notice someone who needed help right in front of me.
When, after their wrestling match, Jacob asks the man or angel for a blessing and they reply, “What is your name? (Gen. 32:28)” it is this second shock I imagine Jacob might feel. Who is he, a stealer of blessings (Gen. 25), to ask for blessings? Who is he to ask for an angel’s honesty? Who is he?
In the space between question and answer, let us imagine Jacob’s entire life flashing before his eyes (including the last time he was asked this very question by his father) and he wonders when the gap between who he is and who he aspires to be got so wide.
To authentically receive future-facing blessing, he (and each of us) must discover the answer to that question, accepting the past through honest self-reflection. “What is your name?”
Only when he answers Jacob, the-one-who-has-grabbed- at-heels, is he blessed capable of being with a new name and a transformed notion of self. “No,” the angel replies, “from now on you will be known as Israel, for you have struggled with beings divine and human, and prevailed. (Gen. 32:29)”
It is the honest recognition of self, that sacred struggle, that empowers him to begin becoming who he dreams himself to be.
May we too be blessed to remember, and to grow – to prevail