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Your Good Name

Simon Sinek tells of one of the first times he stood before an audience to present his breakthrough concept, Start with Why. This was before he’d proven himself with the TED Talks and bestselling books. When he was done, the first person to raise his hand asked, “Have you ever run a multi-billion dollar corporation?” Simon said, No. Then he asked, “Have you ever run a multi-million dollar corporation?” Again Simon said, No. Then he said “I think you’re naive. I think you’re inexperienced. And I don’t think your ideas will ever work in the real world.” And Simon replied. “So don’t use it. Ok. Next question?”

Instead of taking offense, or getting defensive, he decided to make a different point. He was offering a perspective and a point of view. Simon was saying, “I’m trudging up the mountain like everybody else. If my approach helps you, great. If not, that’s ok too.” Everything can work somewhere, but nothing is going to work everywhere.

If I could offer a tool for 2023 that could help our interactions in the year ahead, it would be one that helped us handle criticisms that knock us sideways. If you’re like me, the judgments of others land and stick more like velcro than glancing-off like teflon. 

This is because your self-worth is at stake. Knowing that others have your back matters. It matters a lot. It can keep sideswipes from leaving you flat on your back. Of course you care what others think. But not everyone. And not all the time. 

This week’s portion of Torah includes a fascinating detail about Jacob’s identity. As he anxiously prepares to travel down to Egypt to reunite with his long lost son Joseph, God appears to him. “God spoke to Israel in a night vision, and said “Jacob, Jacob,” “Yes, I am here” he replied (Gen. 46:2). It’s a detail that’s easy to miss. The verse begins by using his earned name, Israel, and then reverts back to twice calling him Jacob. Why? Some say it’s because leaving the Land and forthcoming slavery in Egypt for his descendants makes his less-triumphant name fitting (Ramban). 

But another possibility is that Jacob is used because he will soon revert to being self-critical. That is, he won’t be receiving someone else’s critique. It’ll come from himself. When Pharaoh inquires about his life, Jacob replies: “Few and hard have been my years” (Gen. 47:9). Jacob knows all too well that his early deceptions didn’t come cost-free. He has made trust, especially within his family, very hard to come by. So maybe it’s enough that he earned the name Israel. This doesn’t require that he lose his prior name.

Self-criticism is familiar to most of us. The person you tend to be hardest on is the person you meet in the mirror everyday. Yes, keeping high standards is important. But so is some self-compassion. It’s vital that self-criticism not reduce self-worth.

Others may get you down. When they do, try to remember how Simon Sinek responded once upon a time. Perhaps the story stuck with him in order that it could be used to serve us some day. And when you sense you’re keeping yourself a little too down, call someone who believes in you, someone who knows you by another name you’ve done well to earn. 

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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