Godwrestling: an adult name change

Dear chevra,
Yesterday morning (Shabbat Vayishlach, December 5, 2009), for the first time since my car crash in August, I was able to lead the Torah discussion at P'nai Or of Philadelphia.

(Actually what I do each week is more like weaving than "leading." I choose a passage beforehand from the weekly portiion or the prophetic hafftarah. When we gather on Shabbat morning for an hour of Torah study before the davvening prayer service, first i invite the community to meditate on some aspect of their lives -- which i suggest in a few words -- that is related to the passage we are about to study. Then we say the blessing over Torah study bracha, then we read that passage aloud, with each person reading a few verses from the Everett Fox translation. Then we just begin commenting on what strikes us about the passage and our lives. My job is sometimes to raise a question, sometimes to bring in some other text or a story that might cast new light on this question, and to weave together what different members of the community might say.)

When, last Friday, I rereadi the parashah to choose what passage from it we would focus on and weave our own midrash upon, I realized that it was the Godwrestling portion, after which I have named and focused two of my books. Felt like a good place to reopen my own wrestling.

(Side note, cautionary tale: If you have the chutzpah to write not just one but two books about Godwrestling, you should expect to start experiencing a good bit of sciatic pain, like Yisrael Avinu. Which I do.)

And then I realized -- this past week was the one in which (on the National Havurah Committee listserve) Chaver Bruce Birnberg had asked about ceremonies for adult name changes.

Several people had answered, including me with the processes through which I added “Yishmael” to my own name, Phyllis and I had added “Yam/ Ocean” to both our names, Rabbi Jeff Roth had led a communal name-reassessment ceremony one Rosh Hashanah, and a neighbor had changed my mother’s name when she was desperately sick.

AND -- in the same week we had that conversation, it was the Torah's question of the week, for our Archetypal adult name change!

So maybe the point is that to really and authentically change our names as grown-ups, we need to turn from wrestling/ grabbing at our neighbors and our families, to wrestling with God.

Is the universe really set up so that the only way to come into our own, to receive God's blessing, is to grab and lie and cheat and steal? (That tight and narrow place, that Mitzrayyim, is what it meant to be Yaakov, the Heel, the Grabber.)

When Yaakov wrestled with the God Who seemed to have set up this set of bad choices, the tight spot dissolved and he and Esau were able to embrace each other.

I wish the whole Jewish people could become adult enough to change our real name again, from Grabber to Godwrestler/ Yisrael, and I hope we will ask that not only of others but of ourselves as individuals who seek to become adults.

Shalom, salaam, shantih --- peace, Arthur

P. S. -- During the week before I connected the "Yaakov/ Yisrael" story with the discussion of ceremonies for adult name change, this was the report I had sent the Havurah listserve about my own various experiences with adult name-changing:

When I added “Yishmael” to my Hebrew name (till then “Avraham Yitzchak”), it was simply accomplished by calling me up to the Torah.

This was not a planned event: The aliyah, through a deep God-impulse, drew me into changing my name on the spot -- rather than the name change drawing me to an aliyah.

But when someone is planning a name change, I think an aliyah, made special like an aufruf, would be powerful.

When Phyllis and I both added “Yam/ Ocean” to our names, we did it in our ketubah and announced it under the chuppah.

Rabbi Jeff Roth, leading a Rosh Hashanah service, drew on the Talmud’s comment that “averting the harsh decree” could be accomplished by “tzedakah, tfilah, tshuvah or changing one’s name” (preserved in the RH liturgy without the last part, probably because it was thought to be too easy & too magical).

Jeff asked groups of four to constitute themselves a rotating beit din of three plus a rotating ”litigant.” Each group of four explored the “real name” of each of the four rotating “litigants.” They might agree on reaffirming the old name or on creating a new one. If the latter, the three who for that moment made up the beit din affirmed the fourth person’s new name. Then they rotated who were the beit din and took up someone else’s identity.

After everyone had done this, the people said their names to the whole kahal and everyone chorused the name three times, a chazakah, to affirm it.

In accord with the Talmud’s teaching above, in some communities when a person became dangerously ill the congregation would be witness to adding an additional name to that person’s name (typically adding “Alter,” "Chaim," or ”Leah”). This would usually be done vicariously since the person would be too ill to come to shul. According to the folk wisdom, this would be done in order to confuse the Angel of Death, who might be carrying a death warrant that could legally be carried out only under the old name.

When I was a kid, my mother was desperately sick, and a frum neighbor did this without asking her permission. She was furious at him. But she did recover and lived another 40 years. You won’t find me criticizing the practice.

Shalom, salaam, shantih --- peace, Arthur


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