Sermon Saturday Morning
Parshat Toldot – 2009
“Who are you?” – The moment of truth. Jacob stands before his father and the dreaded question is asked. “Who are you?” It is a rare moment of high drama for the Bible. Isaac has stated his intention to give his blessing to his eldest son, Esau, but Rivka, Jacob’s wife, is determined that the blessing go to her favorite son, Jacob. After all, God promised her before the boys were born that “the elder will serve the younger”; now was the time to act. To Rivka, if Esau gets the blessing, then the oracle will not come true. She has to move quickly. She insists that Jacob impersonate his brother and get the blessing by deceiving his blind father. Jacob is reluctant. He is unsure what to do. He certainly feels he deserves the blessing and not Esau, but he hesitates. He can trick his brother and he can fool the neighbors, but should he play the trickster on his own father? Rivka, his mother, pleads with Jacob to impersonate Esau and finally Jacob goes along, perhaps hoping he will not be asked to lie to his father.
But it all comes down to this moment. The blind Isaac is unsure which son stands before him. Is it Esau or is Jacob playing another trick? So he asks the dreaded question. “Who are you?” It is, for Jacob, the pivotal moment; lie to his father or admit the ruse. The question cuts to the core of Jacob. Is he a liar or an honest man? Does he love his father or does he love the power of the blessing more? Is he his own man or does he blindly follow what his mother says? “Who are you?” Isaac demands. It is now all or nothing. Jacob decides…
“I am Esau, your first born”. He lies. He deceives his father, he insures the wrath of his older, stronger brother. He secures the blessing but the cost is far higher than he can know. He has identified himself as a con man, a deceiver, a trickster. One who will do anything to get his way. He will pay dearly for the deception. He will be exiled from his home, forced into exile without a penny to his name. He will be forced to confront his uncle, a man even more of a con artist than Jacob, and he will depend on Laban the deceiver for his every need. Jacob’s food, shelter and even the love of his life will depend on Jacob trusting his uncle; a confirmed liar and thief.
Later Rabbis will try and exonerate Jacob. They will say he really didn’t lie. That a righteous man like Jacob would never lie to his father. But the Text teaches us the truth. Even the great ancestor of the People of Israel had a moment of truth and he failed the test. For the rest of his life, Jacob will wrestle, literally at times, with the ghosts that will haunt him because of the question of his father, “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” That is not only a question to our patriarch Jacob. It is the question that all of us have to answer. More often than not, we will have to answer it many times. Are you an honest student or will you cheat on the test? Does your business follow ethical standards or will you cheat the unsuspecting customer? Will you be faithful to your spouse or will you let your desires rule your life? It often boils down to that first decision; how will we, like Jacob, act in the moment. “Who are you?” is the question, and almost every day we have to decide who we are and how we will answer that question.
We might think that something as simple as a name could help us identify ourselves, but according to our tradition, even a name is a complicated. The Torah teaches us that Adam, the first human being, was responsible for all the names of all the animals in the world. From that time on, names have never been easy. Jacob was given his name because from birth, he seemed to be trying to push ahead of his twin brother. It seems that Jacob is living up to his name; he is the trickster that his parents identified from birth.
There is a Midrash that teaches us, that every person has three names. There are three different ways that we are known in the world. First, there is the name that we are given at birth by our parents. It reflects the hopes and dreams they have for us at the moment we come into the world. It is likely that we were named after someone in the family that was very special to our parents. Our Ashkenazic tradition is that we are named after a deceased relative who had qualities that our parents wanted to instill in our lives. Sephardim honor living relatives by naming children after them in their lifetime. This name, however, tells us more about our parents than it says about us. If we are pondering the question “Who are you?” this name is not really very helpful. Understanding our parents is important and perhaps some of who we are can be traced to the way our parents raised us, but in the end, we are more than just the dreams of our parents.
The second name is the secret name that only God knows. It is the name that holds the essence of our soul. Many of you may know the story of how the soul comes to be placed in our body. According to the Sages, a soul is picked and is first sent to school to learn about what will happen in his or her life. We learn what work we will do and who we will fall in love with and marry. After this the Angel in charge teaches us the entire Torah, with all the commentaries, so that we will understand the importance of wisdom in our life. Then, in the moment before we are born, the Angel in charge strikes us on the lip and causes us to forget all that we have learned. The story says that this is why we have the indentation above our lip; it is the scar from where the Angel strikes us, and that the reason we are born crying, is because we are heartbroken to have forgotten all that we have learned.
We spend the rest our lives trying to restore all that we have forgotten. It is only the distant memory of what we once learned, the direction of our life, our love and our wisdom that keeps us striving for what we feel must be a deep truth about life. Just as an eraser cleans the page of its writing, but leaves behind the shadow of what was written, so too there is a faint memory of what we once knew before we were born; or as we might say in this age of computers, what was deleted, still leaves traces of what was once there in the computer’s memory. Unfortunately, we also forget the name that we have been assigned by God so if we are trying to answer the question, “Who are you?” this name will not be of much help to us.
The third name that we have is the name that we are known by to those who we meet along the path of our lives. Each time we touch the life of another, we leave a name behind. If we show that we are kind and caring, we will become known as one who is kind and caring. If we choose instead to be hard and cruel, that too will be the reputation that we leave behind. Some people spend their whole lives leaving in their wake only the memory that a selfish and self centered person was here. We can choose to make a difference; we can choose to give of our self, our time or of our resources to those whom we pass in life. If we do, then people will remember us when we are gone saying that once a generous and loving person was here. It is always our choice, we can be known as one who only loves his or her self, or one that is a mentch, a lover of all humanity. This is the name that we give ourselves. And it is the name we are remembered by long after we are gone.
One day, a mother of a young child had a visitor. An elderly woman came to talk about many different topics and told stories of her life. The young child listened in and was spellbound by the conversation between these two women. When the visitor left, the child said to her mother; “What a kind and gentle woman that was who visited us. If that is what it means to grow old, I will not mind growing old at all.” The mother smiled and watched as the visitor walked down the path, then she replied to the child, “If you want to be just like her, then I guess you had better get started. She does not impress me as someone who got that way overnight.”
We should, like our Patriarch Jacob, think about the question, “Who are you?” constantly. If we are unhappy with who we are, then it is important that we begin to change right away. A good name is not something that can be created in a moment. If we feel that we have not lived up to our potential, it is never too late to begin to change. Jacob made all the wrong choices early in his life, but as he grew, he learned that it is never too late to change. One night he wrestled with a divine being. Who that being was, we will never know, but Jacob emerged a changed man. He was wounded but he could walk proudly that he had overcome his past. He emerged with a new name, no longer “Jacob the trickster” but “Israel, the man of God”. His life was still hard and full of pain, but he would now be remembered as the father of a nation, and he would be surrounded by several generations of his family when he dies.
It is never too late to start working on a good name. Every time we find ourselves facing a difficult decision: we need to think of what our Parents would expect us to do; we must ask ourselves if we are living up to our Divine mandate; and we need to consider how it will affect our reputation, for better or for worse. We should, in every moment of decision, hear the words of our Patriarch Isaac, asking us over and over again, “Who are you?”
May we be blessed with good choices, good deeds and good friends, as we say….
Amen and Shabbat Shalom