Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
G-d appeared to Jacob and said, "Your name is Jacob. Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." Nevertheless, the Torah continues to make repeated use of both names, Jacob and Israel, in every following chapter until Jacob’s death. This is because the dual use of both names broadcasts G-d's powerful message to the Jew: You are a gem.
Jacob in Hebrew is Yaakov, which means heel. He was called Yaakov because he emerged from the womb quite literally clutching his brother’s heel. Israel in Hebrew is Yisrael, which means minister or officer of the Almighty. Jacob describes the body, the Jew’s physical component and the lowest part of it at that. Israel describes the Jewish soul; a powerful minister in a royal court of a grand, majestic G-d.
Who Are We?
Of the two names it is not surprising that we gravitate to the latter. It is more flattering to be sons of Israel than to be sons of a heel. Yet, the name Jacob is not entirely erased because the fact is that our souls, holy and powerful as they are, are encased in a physical corporeal human body. When you look at a Jew, you don’t see a soul, you see a body. It would be fallacious to discard the name Jacob and pretend we are completely soulful spiritual beings. We are not. We are physical in the empirical sense and material in orientation. We live in this world and are stimulated by its pleasures. We are Jacobs.
But we are also Israels. It would be equally fallacious to discard the name Israel and pretend that we are merely tangible tactile beings. We are living, breathing sparks of G-d. We are slices of heaven in globs of earth. Our souls are impassioned and aflame with love. Our spirit is bound with G-d. Our essence is aglow with holiness and spirituality, radiant with enthusiasm and inspiration.
Yet, you wouldn’t know it from looking at us. We wouldn’t even know it from looking at ourselves. We are well hidden, G-d’s best kept secret. And for good reason. If our true essence were revealed even to ourselves, let alone to others, we would be unable to reside in this world. We are meant to live in this world, hence our external appearance, but despite it all, we may never be of this world.
We are simultaneously Jacob and Israel. We are body and soul, heaven and earth, inspiration and temptation. We are a duality, often confused and overwhelmed by internal discord, but we fall into place when we understand our true nature. Heaven encased in earth. Israel vested in Jacob.
Perhaps this is why G-d prefaced the name change with the words, “Your name is Jacob.” It is Jacob and will forever be. We are physical human beings with emotional weaknesses and moral failings. We respond to physical stimuli. It is a waste and even counterproductive to ignore this truth. But external appearances not withstanding we must always remember that our true name is Israel. When others look at you they will see a Jacob, but when you address yourself don’t think of Jacob. Know the truth, you shall no longer be called Jacob, Israel shall be your name. Remember who you are and why you are hiding in a body. You are a gem, waiting to be utilized, waiting to be awakened, waiting to be inspired.
Not As It Seems
Elmer Bendiner was a Jewish navigator on a B17 Bomber, flying bombing runs over Czechoslovakia in World War Two. On one occasion his fuel tank was hit by Anti-Aircraft fire, but the crew managed to return to base. It was later discovered that the tank had been ripped open by no less than eleven 20 mm shells. The miracle was that all eleven shells were void of explosive charges. A little piece of paper tucked inside one of the shells contained the following message scrawled in Czech. “This is all we could do for you now. Using Jewish slave labor is never a good idea.”
The point I want to make is that not everything is as it seems. What appeared to the Nazis to be a menace, bullets that shoot Jewish navigators out of the sky, turned out to be a miracle that saved lives. A Jew is also not what s/he seems on the outside.
Let’s take this a little deeper with a hypothetical scenario. Suppose you discovered a way to achieve fusion in a simple crystal and further discovered a safe and controlled method to deliver its explosive energy. Suppose you designed a pod into which the crystal is inserted and through which it unleashes its unbridled energy in a safe and controlled fashion.
On the surface the crystal would look no different than any other, a pear shaped ball of glass that reflects light. If you showed it to someone and asked what it was, the answer would be simple, a crystal.
Then you insert your crystal into your special pod and it suddenly comes aglow. It emits a blinding light that radiates enough energy to power the entire city of New York and rocket a hundred spaceships to the moon. You ask that same person what he sees and the answer would be, it is a powerful source of unending energy, a gem, the most precious item in the world. It’s worth its weight in gold.
Why did you hide its true identity in a simple crystal? Because you wanted a safe and stable delivery system that wouldn’t explode and destroy the world. But now that you safely tucked this enormous power into a simple crystal you must label it properly and ensure that everyone knows what it is lest they mistake it for a simple crystal and never learn to make use of its power.
The only way to demonstrate its power is to insert it into the pod. Until you bring crystal to pod you have a useless though pretty crystal and a useless though futuristic pod. The pod cannot transmit energy and the crystal cannot deliver its energy. But once you bring them together you unleash a power the likes of which cannot be duplicated.
You Are a Gem
This analogy applies to the soul. The soul is a powerful source of unending holiness and Divinity. The creative power with which G-d designed, formed and built the universe can be found in every single Jewish soul. But this soul comes packaged in a stable and safe container called a body. Had the soul been loosed on the world without its physical carrier it could have unleashed an energy that could destroy the world. The body is a safe and suitable vehicle that delivers the soul to the world.
The drawback is that all bodies look alike and from the outside there is no way to discern which is invested with a transcendental Jewish soul and which has a baseline human soul. The Torah therefore reminds our forefather and through him his Jewish descendants, your name is Jacob, but don’t forget that you are really Israel. On the outside you look like a simple Jacob and there is good reason for that, but don’t be fooled. You are much more than Jacob. You are a gem. You are a soul smoldering with passion, melting with ecstasy and quivering with sacred joy. You are an Israel.
Torah and Mitzvah are the pods that help us deliver our souls’ energy. When we perform a Mitzvah with a physical item, we unleash unbounded sacred energy that fills G-ds world with holiness. When we use a dollar for charity, a book for prayer, a computer for Torah study and the internet to connect Jewishly with our peers, we merge soul with Mitzvah and unleash G-d’s powerful energy.
The soul is holy, the soul is powerful and the soul is beautiful. It is plugged into the highest realms of the Divine and you have it.
Don’t neglect it. Don’t forget who you are. You are Israel. You are a gem.