Vayishlach proposes an interesting change in our ancestor Yaakov (Jacob).
Yaakov has a name that is not really a honorable one. In the two moments when the name is explained to us, readers, the text first points out the need to supplant his brother, clinging to his brother’s heel, and then to the stealing of blessings, as Esav points out that Yaakov actually means yakiv, one who swindles, cheats or sneaks.
We, despite being descendants of Yaakov, call ourselves by the name children of Israel, the name that Yaakov receives in our portion Vayishlach. Yaakov will actually receive this name twice, once by the angel with whom he struggles during the night by the dried riverbed of the river Yavok, and another time when God Godself, using the name E=lohim, will again change Yaakov’s name. But the new name does not stick at all with the first name change proposed by the angel. The text consistently calls him Ya’akov after this. Yisra’el, we are informed, is the one who struggles with humans and God and wins. Ya’akov, the one who cheats.
If we read the entire saga of Yaakov, looking for moments when Yaakov encounters God, we will see that there is a 21 year hiatus – all the time that Yaakov is in Lavan’s house, Yaakov does not mention God at all, using any name. It is as if that wondrous dream of the ladder is put in the backburner, and forgotten. As Yaakov leaves Lavan’s house, stealthy, because he really believes that Lavan won’t let him go, God, using the name Ad-nai, talks to Yaakov, telling him to go back to his father’s house. As Yaakov has his first name change, and then meets Esav and makes peace, Yaakov is still being called Yaakov, God is still being called E-lohim by Yaakov, and things seem to be in a stand still. But then something quite interesting happens: after the whole ordeal with his brother Esav, the text says that God tells Ya’akov to go build an altar.
Ya’akov, from his own initiative, tells everyone in his family that they have to “Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves, and change your clothes. Then we will arise and go to up to Beit El, and I shall make an altar there to the God who answered me on the day of my distress and was with me on the way that I went.”
Ya’akov is preparing to encounter God directly through sacrifice, and at that time sacrifices are what we today would call prayer.
This preparation is essential, at the end: because this is when God Godself will change the name of Ya’akov. The place will also be changed by receiving a new name, since now there is an altar giving a sacred status to that place.
Even though the change in the place is clear, the change in Ya’akov will not be as complete. Yaakov will toggle between the two polar opposites: Ya’akov and Yisra’el. The text will then proceed to show Ya’akov being called by those two names – when Ya’akov is taking charge of the future of the Jewish people, he will be called Yis’rael, otherwise, he will be called Ya’akov.
Yisrael, then is a name connected to expanded consciousness, our higher selves, the version of us that looks in the long run and is able to both ask for forgiveness and forgive, the version of us that shares love freely and is capable of receiving expressions of love. In the end, we want to fulfill Ya’akov’s prayer to God after the dream with the stairs reaching up to heaven: Ad-nai will be our God. So we say every day, twice, the Shemah – Ad-nai Eloheinu, Ad-nai Echad; and in the end of Yom Kippur, Ad-nai hu haE-lohim.
And when we, today, approach prayer, approach this moment of possibly encountering God, we too need to prepare ourselves and be open to the encounter. Rabbi Micki Rosen, z”l, had a saying on the walls of Yakar, the shul I attended when I was in Jerusalem: you can pray in a barn, but can you pray in a barn? The second “you” was underlined. Coming to a space dedicated to prayer is essential to be ready to pray. Our tradition will see choosing what to wear as significant – every time a person changes clothes in the Tanach, in the Bible, that person is either meeting a king or talking to God.
On one level, clothes are an expression of respect. Just as one would not show up to meet a king in rags, one also does not stand before God in prayer in tatters. And yet, in the discussion about what to wear, the halachic decisors will indicate that the clothes do not have to be anything special – they should be clean and presentable. Prayer, as something shared by all, cannot become a fashion show.
What are we to make of all of this once we face realities such as Zoom, and join minyans through our computer? In some sense, we should prepare ourselves as well, and our space. It is challenging to see our living rooms as sacred space, but if we make a conscious effort of preparing the space, it too can become a place for God. If we make a conscious choice regarding clothes, and join the minyan in something other than PJs or sweatpants, we are expressing our readiness to make this experience the best it can be – an encounter with God, an encounter with community and an encounter with the best part of ourselves.