Shaarei Shamayim

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VAYISHLACH 5774

VAYISHLACH 5774

Let me ask you: what was for you the most important story of this past week? For me, it was not the failure of the negotiations with Iran by the P5+1—the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—because the failure occurred at the end of last week when France—can you believe it?—refused to go along with reducing some of the severe sanctions on Iran while receiving nothing but vague promises in return. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned against signing such a “sucker’s deal” with Iran and told a French radio station: “It is necessary to take fully into account Israel’s security concerns.” France of all nations is concerned about Israel’s security?

And no, the big story of the week for me was not Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu capitulating to Secretary of State John Kerry who last week revealed his true pro-Palestinian colors (I’ll explain more later) by putting a freeze on some housing developments in the so-called West Bank.

And no, the big story of the week for me was not even Barak Obama recognizing the failure of the roll out of his ObamaCare program and his trying to tell a disbelieving nation that, “Yes, if you like your health plan you can keep it!”

The big story of the week for me was the total surprise when I read in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the Atlanta Braves will be moving in 2017 to Cobb County! When I came to Atlanta in 1989 I was a diehard Mets fan. But the Braves soon won me over. Of course I was devastated every year when they didn’t win or even get into the World Series—except in 1995 when they won. But that was only because I was a big fan. I especially enjoyed the fact that I could go to the games from my home in midtown Atlanta using back streets and get there in a relatively short time with little traffic. Now, at the new location up by the junction of I285 and I75, I fear it will be a nightmare of traffic.

And then I read—buried at the bottom of the report in the paper—this tantalizing kicker: “Could it be a chance also to rebrand the Braves’ image? The scuttlebutt among some politicos is that the team may also look to change their logo amid the move.” In other words, change their name because the name, “Braves,” is no longer “PC,” politically correct.

I think this was prompted by the controversy in the nation’s capital recently over the name of the “Washington Redskins” when the District of Columbia’s City Council passed a resolution calling for a change of the name of the football team. The feeling was that the word “Redskins” is offensive and demands were made by some American Indian tribes for its removal. The fact is, the Washington Redskins don’t play in Washington—they play in Maryland—so the DC resolution had no real teeth.

How do I come down on this controversy? 1st I asked myself,

what about the Cleveland “Indians” and the Kansas City “Chiefs?” Where does it end? The Florida State University “Seminoles” football games begins with a student—not an Indian—putting on an Indian costume with war paint on his face, getting on a horse and riding to the center of the field throwing a flaming spear into the ground, with tens of thousands of people in the stadium chanting and raising their arm in a “tomahawk chop.” No one seems to be bothered by this! So, if this is okay, what’s wrong with the “Braves?”

I’d like to know what you think. How many of you think the Braves should change their name? How many of you think we should still call them the “Braves” even in Cobb County? And how many of you think that this rabbi has lost his mind in making this the subject of a Shabbos sermon? 

The truth is, this question is a very appropriate for a sermon. Western civilization follows Shakespeare: “What’s in a name? …a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet?” In other words, a name has no real meaning; it’s just a name. Jewish tradition, however, places great importance on names. From our perspective a name defines you.

There’s a story told of a husband and wife who had their 1st child and couldn’t agree on the name, so they went to their rabbi who asked, “What’s the problem?”

          The mother said, “As the mother, I should have the 1st right to choose…I want the baby named after my father, Reuven.”

          The husband said, “No, I am the man of the house…I want the baby named after my father, whose name was Reuven.”

          The rabbi immediately perks up and says, “So then, what’s the problem?” 

          The mother cries out, “His father was a horse thief.”          He cries out, “Her father was a wife beater.” 

          The rabbi, in his great wisdom, proclaims: “I have the solution: you are to name the baby Reuven. If he grows to be a horse thief, then he is named after the husband’s father and if he grows to be a wife beater, he is named after the wife’s father.”

It’s no laughing matter, however, when we change the name of a person when they’re seriously ill. The truth is we don’t usually change the name, but we add to the name. Some think this is done to confuse the Angel of Death…he comes knocking on the door asking for “David” and the ill person says, “It must be some other person…I’m David Chaim.” That’s a way of saying that we believe a change in name can lead to a change of destiny.

My colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg from Baltimore, writes about his beloved Washington Redskins, relating the name to the parsha 2 weeks ago. When Esav comes in from the field all tired and starving, he finds his brother Jacob cooking a lentil stew and says: “Let me swallow, I pray, some of this red red stew, for I am faint.” Then the Torah (Gen. 25:30) tells us: Al keyn kara sh’mo Edom, “Therefore was his name called ‘Edom.’” Edom literally means, “Redskin.” 

Esav is not the only one of the 2 brothers to have a 2nd name. In today’s parsha (Gen. 32:29) Jacob has a name change as well after he fights with a mysterious stranger through the night. His name is changed from Jacob to Israel…Ki sarita im Elokim v’im anashim vatuchal, “for you did battle with Gd and man and have overcome.” His original name, Jacob, or Yaakov, comes from the word ekev, meaning “heel,” because he came out of his mother’s womb holding on to the heel of Esav. And throughout his life that defined him. Yaakov was always on his heels, always on the one on the run. Now that he stood his ground and did battle, he needed a new name, for he was, in a sense, a different person.

So yes, names make a difference. And let me give you 2 contemporary examples. As I said earlier, John Kerry last week showed his true pro-Palestinian colors by completely taking the Palestinian side in its negotiations with Israel. There was no mention of Palestinian incitement and violence and no mention of the Palestinian’s insistence on a “right of return.” Kerry is setting it up that if the talks fail, it will be all Israel’s fault…and if there is a 3rd Intifada, that too, will be Israel’s fault as long as there are Jewish settlements on the West Bank—which he considers all illegitimate. But they are not illegitimate. International legal expert and former Israeli ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker, wrote an insightful letter explaining why. You can pick up a copy on the table in the hall (for those reading this, it will follow at the end). The Palestinians now know that they don’t need to compromise at all because they can count on Kerry and America to pressure Israel and do the job for them. 

Kerry’s words were harsh, critical and upsetting. But I couldn’t help but wonder: if instead of referring to the territory as being “the West Bank,” had Kerry used the more correct name, “Judea and Samaria” for these territories…wouldn’t it sound different calling on a Jewish state to leave “Judea and Samaria” where its ancient roots are found, then calling it the “West Bank?” Palestinians never call the land “Judea and Samaria” even though that’s what it has always been called. They understand its connotation. And the Prime Ministers of Israel never refer to it as the “West Bank.” But the world media has adopted—surprise surprise—the Arab perspective. And so have we!

Although most American Jews now also call it the “West Bank,” these debates about the Redskins and the Braves have taught me that, from now on, it’s only “Judea and Samaria” for me. Let share with you what Rabbi Wohlberg concluded regarding the name, the “Washington Redskins.” He forwarded to me the following email sent to him: The Washington Redskins are changing their name because of all the negativity, shame, humiliation, dissent, polarity, adversity, defiance, hatred, animosity, contempt, discrimination, division, violence, counter-productivity, ill spirit, ungodliness and hostility associated with that name. From now on, they will be known simply as “The Redskins.”

Yes, the name “Washington” has a very negative connotation these days. And for some, so does the name “Jew.” To this day, in the Oxford Dictionary one of the entries for “Jew” is: “bargain for someone in a miserly or petty way.” But in last week’s Torah portion (Gen. 29:35) we learned what a Jew really means. We are called “Jews,” Yehudim in Hebrew, because we are all—with the exception of Kohanim, Leviim and converts—descended from the tribe of “Judah” or Yehudah. When Judah was born his mother said, Hapa-am odeh et Hashem, “This time I will thank Hashem.” The word “Jew” or Yehudi literally means, “one who is thankful.”

So let’s thank Hashem for the names we were given, within each name, we believe, is coded our personal destiny. If you want to find out more about your destiny you can look up your name in Rabbi Benjamin and Elaine Blech’s book, Your Name is Your Blessing. I have placed a copy for you to look at on the table. So how do I come down on this controversy about the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves? I can honestly tell you that I would not be offended if they renamed the Braves, the “Maccabees” or the “Fighting Jews.” With no malice, but with admiration, I pray that I may somehow find the courage to fight the traffic and watch the “Braves” play in Cobb County. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                                      11/16/13

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