Between the Lines—Va-yishlah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Babylonian Talmud—Masekhet Berakhot 12b-13a

תניא, אמר להם בן זומא לחכמים: וכי מזכירין יציאת מצרים לימות המשיח? והלא כבר נאמר: (ירמיהו כ"ג) הנה ימים באים נאם ה' ולא יאמרו עוד חי ה' אשר העלה את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים, כי אם חי ה' אשר העלה ואשר הביא את זרע בית ישראל מארץ צפונה ומכל הארצות אשר הדחתים שם!

אמרו לו: לא שתעקר יציאת מצרים ממקומה, אלא שתהא שעבוד מלכיות עיקר, ויציאת מצרים טפל לו. כיוצא בו אתה אומר: (בראשית ל"ה) לא יקרא שמך עוד יעקב כי אם ישראל יהיה שמך. לא שיעקר יעקב ממקומו, אלא ישראל עיקר ויעקב טפל לו וכן הוא אומר: (ישעיהו מ"ג) אל תזכרו ראשנות וקדמניות אל תתבוננו, אל תזכרו ראשנות זה שעבוד מלכיות, וקדמניות אל תתבוננו זו יציאת מצרים

It has been taught: Ben Zoma said to the Sages: "Will we mention the Exodus from Egypt [when reciting the Shema'] in the days of the Messiah? Was it not long ago said: Assuredly, a time is coming - declares the Lord - when they shall no more say: 'As the Lord lives, who led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt;' but rather, 'As the Lord lives, who brought and led the offspring of the House of Israel from the northland and from all the lands to which I have banished them'?" (Jer. 23:7–8)

They replied: "It is not that [mention of] the Exodus shall be removed from its place [in the Shema'], rather [our deliverance from] the oppression of other nations shall become primary and the Exodus shall become secondary. Similarly you read: You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name. (Gen. 35:15) It is not that [the name] Jacob shall be removed, rather that Israel shall be the principal name and Jacob a secondary one. And thus it says: Do not recall what happened of old, or ponder what happened of yore! (Isa. 43:18) Do not recall what happened of old - this means the oppression of other nations; or ponder what happened of yore - this means the Exodus from Egypt."

Can we ever break free from the troubled darkness of our past? The midrash above teaches that even radical changes in our personal lives or national destiny do not erase reminders of who or where we previously were. The Shema', our most fundamental statement of faith, will always contain the tension between our prophets' utopian vision of the messianic future and our people's collective memory of the persecution we faced in prior centuries. Our personal journeys, like Jacob's, demonstrate the power of a multilayered identity built upon maintaining, not uprooting, symbols of our old selves.

Often I have witnessed a friend change his or her name not after marriage but as a response to another kind of major life event. Many of my peers have taken a new name as part of the spiritual transformation involved in their conversion to Judaism or have switched to using their given Hebrew names in becoming ba'alei teshuvah (born-again Jews). A few friends, in struggling through a debilitating illness, have followed the talmudic observation of Rabbi Isaac (BT Rosh Hashanah 16b) that a change of one's name can remove causes of misfortune. In all of these cases, I have seen a modern Jew reenact the famous episode in this week's Torah portion of Jacob's wrestling with the Divine to become Israel.

Like Jacob, my friends have courageously accepted that their past and life's adversities would not disappear. May we, too, bravely embrace opportunities to reshape ourselves while affirming the paths that have brought us to where we are today.