"Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" Gustave Doré, 1855
"Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" Gustave Doré, 1855

Why it matters that we’re People of Israel instead of People of Jacob

Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4-36:43

Obadiah 1:1-21

What’s in a name? On one hand, it would seem that its entire function is as an identifier for others to call us, or for communication with others. But what if there were no others? Would you even need a name?

Yet there are few things more personal to a person than their name.

Parents stress out and read numerous books to come up with the perfect name for their newborn. Jews for millennia have named their children after deceased family members or ancestors, forging a connection between those souls. Our name is very personal, yet its utility seems to be mainly for the benefit of others.

The Torah places great significance on names. An entire book of the Torah is called Shemot (names). And in Genesis, God names the numerous creations, confers the name Adam upon the first human, and asks Adam to give names to all the wildlife on land and birds in the sky.

Kabbalah takes it a step further. A name isn’t just an appendage; rather, it’s the very source of the person’s spiritual energy and the conduit for fusing body and soul to that energy. By looking at the name of something, we get an indication of its spiritual core. Adam by gazing at the animals was able to see their inner spirit, and thus give names that highlighted their essential character, purpose and spiritual DNA.

We can better appreciate this insight in light of the numerous name changes in the Torah. Starting with Avram and Sarai becoming Avrohom and Sarah, the Torah emphasises that as their mission and journey in life changed, so did their names in order to reflect their new spiritual identity.

In this week’s parashah, we learn of the most consequential name change in all of history. It occurs following one of the most enigmatic episodes in scripture.

The patriarch Jacob is attempting to escape once again from the wrath of his brother, Esau, who’s still out for revenge after not getting the blessings of their father, Isaac. Alone on a riverbank, he is accosted by a stranger who wrestles him through the night but is unable to subdue elderly Jacob.

Daybreak reveals that the stranger is an angel who tells Jacob that his name will from now on be “Israel.” What a change! The two names couldn’t be more opposite. Yaakov, which means heel, was clutching onto his twin brother Esau’s heel at birth, signifying always being behind and struggling to get ahead. Yisroel means to be on top, to prevail and have mastery over the divine.

We could have been forever called the children of Jacob, but henceforth we would be known as the children of Israel.

However, in all of the name changes in the Torah, where everyone is subsequently referred to by their new name, Jacob alone is later called by his old name. In fact, he is more often called by that name than the more exalted, blessed name Israel.

We have followed the Torah’s lead, and the name Yaakov has continuously been one of the most popular Jewish name throughout history. Why?

The Kabbalah and the Hasidic masters teach that Israel and Jacob are but two facets of the Jewish people, and by extension every Jew. They are both important and teach us profound lessons about who we are and the nation as a whole.

Israel represents the times of both national spiritual dominance and individual inner fortitude.

Jacob, in contrast, denotes personal struggle, where we are constantly clawing and striving to climb and reach higher, as well as the state of the Jewish people as a whole, where nothing comes easily. Our challenges and relationship with God and Judaism are very much a daily struggle.

We may become discouraged when it seems that to live proudly as a Jew is like fighting a never-ending battle. We have tried for thousands of years to shed the image of Jacob, our lowly heel personality always fighting for survival, hoping to be accepted by the family of nations as a peer — when we can finally be Israel, back on top, when the struggles and battles finally will be over.

This is why the Torah keeps the name Jacob, because the Jacob aspect of our soul is indispensable to our survival.

Indeed, we have been under the proverbial heel much longer than we have been on top. The spirit of Yaakov teaches us the secret of Jewish survival. That indomitable spirit that will surely see us to a new dawn for Israel. Shabbat Shalom.

Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at rabbizarchi@sfshul.org.