It was a beautiful morning: one of those golden Sydney days when the sky is an impossible shade of blue and a gentle Nor’ Easterly teases the treetops.
I sat in the synagogue, listening to the rhythmic cadence of the Hebrew prayers, my gaze roving around the warm sanctuary with its clerestory windows affording a view of the jacarandas in full bloom.
It was my first visit to this synagogue and I happened to have chosen a morning when a Bar Mitzvah was scheduled. The young man, earnest and immaculate in his well-pressed shirt and trousers, unruly teenage hair slicked back with enough product to tame the most intractable Jewish locks, acquitted himself well. Flushed with pleasure at the praise heaped upon him for his considerable effort in mastering his Torah and Haftorah portions, he wore his brand new tallit with pride as he took upon his narrow shoulders the burdens and responsibilities of manhood.
There were many Torah readings and I was honoured to be given an aliyah – to be asked to introduce the second reading in Hebrew. Of course, since I was a visitor, nobody knew my Hebrew name. Three times I was asked in whispered undertones and then heard my name spoken aloud to the congregation.
My duty complete, the blessing received, I returned to my seat to listen once again to the next portion.
My grasp of Hebrew is minimal so my eyes turned once more to the beauty of the jacarandas and I found myself lulled into one of those timeless states that visit us, usually when least expected; a state in which the veil grows thin and we catch a fleeting glimpse of another level of being.
Fragmentary words of Isaiah 43:1 echoed in my heart, unbidden: “I have called you by your name, you are Mine”. This is the concluding sentence of verse 1 which reads in entirety, “And now, so said the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and the One Who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, and I called by your name, you are Mine.”
Thrice my name had been called aloud – Miriam bat Yaakov – daughter of Jacob who wrestled with the Divine.
It seemed curiously appropriate, given my ongoing struggles to make sense of my Jewishness, indeed of my very existence in relation to the Ground of Being. The Jacob motif occurs again and again in my spiritual life, always at times of transition and transcendence, always on the threshold of something deeper, something new…
The dreamlike state faded and my mind returned to the present as the service continued. But like Yaakov, Jacob, for whom I am named, for that brief moment I had stood on holy ground – and I was changed.
* * * * *
My curiosity piqued, later, at home, I read various interpretations of that verse and found that Jacob represents the everyday, human side of the Jewish people, while Israel, the name which Jacob was given after he had wrestled with and triumphed over his unseen adversary, signifies the spiritual dimension. In his struggles, he insisted “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
Is it, perhaps, that we do not realise we are blessed until obliged to wrestle with the perceived dichotomy between our humanity and our spirituality? Perhaps we fail to grasp that no dichotomy actually exists, save in our own minds, and that we have indeed been called by name, needing only to open ourselves to hear the voice that calls us.