Friday, January 8, 2016

Parashat Va'era: Star Wars, names and identity

Is it safe, finally, to talk about Star Wars? I have to say, I was amazed at how well the world did in not spoiling the movie. It took us a week to go see it after it was released—yes, my 18-year old self is disappointed—but it was worth the wait and no one managed to step on and thwart the surprises in the film.
And the film was a ton of fun. It was great to be able to take my 8-year old to see Star Wars the way my parents took me to see the first movies as a kid. It was wonderful to see these characters, like old friends, return to the screen. I loved the new characters, the effects, pretty much everything about the experience of seeing the movie.
And for me, there was a lot of Torah in the film, especially around identity and names. Finn, the Stormtrooper, doesn’t have a name, or a background, and needs to be given one by the pilot he rescues. Rey the scavenger girl’s name may be made up, disguising her identity. Kylo Ren is, of course, Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s child, but in taking a new name he distances himself from his family and the light, and in a quiet but powerful moment, when Rey and Finn meet Han Solo and ask if he is “the” Han Solo, he replies, sadly, “I used to be”.
These moments pass quickly in the film but they raise questions for us as well: what is our identity? What is our ‘name’? Or, more accurately, what are our names, our roles? How do we see ourselves viz-a-viz others? Do we allow others to name us and does that naming define us? Or do we choose our own self-definitions?
These are the questions that begin our Torah portion. We begin with God speaking, saying to Moses: “I am YHVH (the unpronounceable name of God). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” Now, leaving aside the textual issue with this—for we know at least Abraham calls out God by name—what are we to make of this moment, this revelation? What is going on with God’s identity in this scene, and God’s relationship with Israel? Rashi points out: the text does not say ‘I did not make this name known to them’, but ‘I did not make MYSELF known to them by that name’. That is, I did not make myself known to them in My aspect of utter truthfulness and reliability, which is represented by the tetragrammaton, For I made promises but did not fulfill them.”
That’s a lot to unpack, but let’s put it this way:  by changing the name, God is changing the relationship, the dynamic, between God and Israel. Before, Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs were getting a shallower, less authentic experience of God. Now, their descendants are getting the real deal, and because of that, Israel and God are going to interact differently than they had before. You change the name, you change the dynamic, change the interaction, change the relationship. You see the other differently.

So a week ago many of us made Resolutions. I know, New Year’s was really four months ago, back at Rosh Hashanah, and we should have made our resolutions then, but for some of us, January is when it happens. And for most folks, resolutions are all about changing—either ourselves or our relationships. Which means we need to look carefully at our names, our identities: in our families, our work, our circle of friends, our community. Do we choose a new name in order to hide our true selves behind a mask like Kylo Ren? Do we create a new name and a new future for ourselves, like Finn? Do we mourn a past identity like Han? Or are we discovering something new about ourselves like Rey? Only we can answer those questions, and in this new secular year, I hope we each find a way to share our truest names, our truest selves, as God does.