Israel or Jacob?

Insights into People in the Torah Series
The Torah Portion of VaYishlach Genesis 28:10–32:3

Moshe Kempinski,

Judaism Haredi soldiers learning Torah
Haredi soldiers learning Torah
צילום: PR

Though we have already explored Yaacov (Jacob) in a previous article we need to understand Israel as well. Yaacov is Israel and Israel is Yaacov and that interplay is worthy of thought and consideration.

After the struggle between Yaacov (Jacob) and the Angel of Esav (Esau) we read the following

"And he said to him, what is your name? And he said, Yaacov . And he said, No longer will you be called Yaacov, but rather Israel; for you have struggled along with God and with men, and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:28-29)

Then we read similarly the following when G-d appears to Yaacov again.

“And G-d said to him, your name is Yaacov; no longer shall you be called Yaacov, but Israel shall be your name; and He called his name Israel. (Genesis 35:10)

Yet throughout the Torah and the Tanach, these two names will continue to be interchanged and will continue to play out in the life of Jacob and in the lives of his descendants. Why would that be?

This is so radically different from what we know of Avraham ;

”No longer will you be called Avram; your name will be Avraham         ( Abraham) , for I have made you a father of many nations.”(Genesis 17:5).” With Avraham the name change created within him a new entity.

Yaacov on the other hand was somehow going to embody both aspects of existence ensconced by both of his names.(Meshech Chochma Genesis 35:10).

First let us explore the meaning of both names

The understood meaning in the “non Torah world”  of Jacob’s name is" he who supplants, and undermines”. It is incredible though perhaps not may not be surprising that the world adopted an understanding of the meaning of Jacob's name from the words of Esav, the hater of Jacob. Yet it was not Esav that gave him his name but rather it came from a higher source. Perhaps the Esav’s definition was so readily adopted because it mirrored some opf these people’s own twisted and preferred vision of this father of the people of Israel.

Yet that is not the reason Jacob or Yaacov was given his name. At the birth of Esav and Yaacov we read “After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esav’s heel; so he was named Yaacov” (Genesis  25:26).

The name Yaacov comes from the Hebrew root LeAkov (to take step after step). Yaacov represented a spiritual strength and ability to trod forward and continue in spite of all obstacles his life journey.

It is a journey that will compel the children of Yaacov to learn to depend on their G-d above. “For the conductor, a song of David. May Hashem answer you on a day of distress; may the name of the G-d of Yaacov fortify you. May He send your aid from His sanctuary, and may He support you from Zion. (Psalm 20:1-3) The name Yaacov then describes the life of adversity in an ongoing pursuit of the ultimate purpose.

 Which in fact is the exact opposite of what the name Esav ( Esau) represents. The name “Esav” comes from the Hebrew root Asui (done). That is to say Esav lives in the here and now. That is all that is important in his life. “And Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint.. Esau replied, “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?”… and Esau despised the birthright.( Genesis 25:30-34).

Esav represents living and focusing on the here and now and Yaacov represents a consistent and constant walk into destiny.

That destiny is defined by the name “Israel”.

Rabeinu Bachya explained that Yaacov is the name indicating physicality, while Israel is a name that is related more to the spiritual. Rashi explains that the name Yaacov indicates a “lowered status in exile”, while the name Israel indicates “courage and victory related to destiny”. The Meshech Chochma explains that the name Yaacov relates to the physical reality of this individual and of his descendants. The name Israel relates to their spiritual destiny and purpose.

We see therefore throughout the Biblical text that Yaacov is the name used in the temporal but constant struggle in our lives. Israel represents the prophetic and destiny based reality.

“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled along with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)

It is in that journey that the world will marvel at the miraculous survival of these descendants of Jacob. Their stubborn walk forward , step by step will cause even people like Balaam to exclaim “He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; Hashem, his G-d, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship” (Numbers 23:21).

In the midst of that courageous step by step walk , Balaam  will be forced to exclaim as well “How beautiful are your tents, Yaacov, your dwelling places, Israel. “(Numbers 24:5). The tents representing the fragile nomadic existence of this people while the dwelling places representing the prophetically fulfilled permanent abode.

It is only due to the strength and tenacity represented by the name Yaakov that we will truly achieve the destiny declared by the name Israel.

That is the reason we see that when Yaacov blesses his children towards the end of his days  in the following way  ;

” Yaacov called for his sons and said, "Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Gather and listen, sons ofYaacov, and listen to Israel, your father.” (Genesis 49:1-2)

Our level of happiness and sense of hopefulness in our spiritual walk through history is a function of discovering purpose and meaning in our lives.

Yaacov represents purpose and Israel represents meaning. The result of that tenacious faith and stubborn survival of Yaacov will earn them the name of Israel for eternity;

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther