Ten years ago, I was applying for my first rabbinical position in New York City. The night before the weekend audition (proba), I was riding in a car with one of my mentors, a rabbi with decades of experience. I took the opportunity to ask for advice going into this big weekend, and I remember the exact words he offered. He said, “Yitzi, be yourself.” In my mind, I responded that for those classic words of wisdom I need not have asked. Sensing my disappointment, he then added, “But be the most rabbinic version of yourself.” He left me to puzzle the meaning of that cryptic mandate.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, we encounter the biblical Jacob returning from Laban’s home where he spent the past two decades. Jacob is apprehensive about his upcoming encounter with his brother Esau. The night before Esau and Jacob meet, Jacob is visited by an angel representing Esau, and they wrestle. Jacob is victorious, and he demands the angel bless him. The angel, in turn, bestows on Jacob the new name of “Israel,” the title held forever by the future Jewish people.
Yet, when Jacob asks the angel to share his own name, the angel is coy and retorts, “Why do you ask my name?” The Midrash cited by Rashi explains the underlying tension, and why in a conversation about names and titles the angel is so cagey. The angel explains that he is an emissary of God, and so his identity fluctuates each time that he is given a mission. He has no set “name” because he has no stable identity. This response is also a message for Jacob.
More than any other hero of the Torah, Jacob lives in transition. He grows up in the home of Isaac and Rebecca and for decades studies, “sitting in the tents” of knowledge. He then spends 20 years in faraway Haran as a shepherd of the flocks of Laban. When he returns to Canaan with his family, he has a few years of tranquility, a time he would have thought to be his retirement, but is surprised that he actually needs to spend the last portion of his life in Egypt watching his beloved Joseph nurture the family and feed the region.
Jacob’s is a life of flux. He is never settled, always moving to a new place and challenge. It is to the transitory existence that the angel responds. An angel shifts and is completely reinvented for each situation or mission, and he declares to Jacob that his method must be different. Jacob is not an angel, he is a person, and people need to develop and cherish a stable sense of self. Jacob must utilize the same traits that he activated in the home of Laban as he marches toward his new future. Regardless of his new environments, he must continue to be a person of faith and fortitude, of truth and tenacity.
Jacob can and must know that he is the father of a people that will need to respond to vastly different environments. They must do that by maintaining an understanding of who they are and the values they stand for. When people act like angels, and choose absolute recreation for every circumstance, they inadvertently destroy their roots and are left to blow in the wind. To be grounded, the Jewish people must recognize their heritage and ideals while offering quick response to each new situation.
As I look back on my experience in the rabbinate over the decade, I have been in diverse situations, environments and locations. I also begin to understand what it means to be a rabbinic version of myself. I need to identify and foster the aspects of my personality that will encourage and inspire others. I am who I am, but I have a personal and communal mandate to cultivate my best personality and activities. We are not all rabbis, nor are we Jacob, but the angel’s directions are for each of us. We must know ourselves and we must bring our best selves to bear even as everything around us changes. PJC
Rabbi Yitzi Genack is the rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.