LETTER FROM ISRAEL
A riddle for consideration as the Book of Bereishit draws to a close:
What is it that changes twice during the life of the last patriarch, Yaakov, but doesn’t really seem to change at all?
The answer, of course: Yaakov’s name.
On two occasions in Parshat Vayishlach God moves to change Yaakov’s name to Yisrael.
The first endeavor unfolds through the aegis of an angel who, after wrestling with the patriarch through the darkness of the night, ultimately responds to Yaakov’s request for a blessing by declaring: “No longer will your name be spoken of as Yaakov, but as Yisrael, for you have struggled with man and with God and prevailed.”
The second occasion develops through a quieter series of events. Without warning, God commands Yaakov to return, in fulfillment of the patriarch’s own vow, to Beit El, the site of his earlier famous dream of a ladder stretching heavenward. There, God again appears to the patriarch and declares: “No longer shall your name be called Yaakov, for Yisrael shall be your name.” The Torah emphatically concludes: “And He” — God — “called his name Yisrael.”
The clear questions before us are twofold. Firstly, must God change Yaakov’s name twice, and why specifically on these two occasions? Secondly, why, even after these two divine attempts, does Yaakov’s name-change not stick? Because even after the two-step name-changing process, Yaakov still is called Yaakov in the Torah more often than he is called Yisrael.
Concerning the second of these questions; the apparent lack of permanence in the change of Yaakov’s name, a general rabbinic consensus does emerge, although with minor variations. The rabbis maintain that Yaakov’s name change is meant to be prophetically dynamic; mirroring shifting conditions in the patriarch’s life and in the lives of his progeny. There will be times when Yaakov will be “Yaakov,” struggling and downtrodden, and there will be times when he will be Yisrael, triumphant and dominant.
And because this last patriarch is the most direct progenitor of b’nei Yisrael, the Jewish nation, this symbolism extends further. There will be times when, due to their changing circumstances, Yaakov’s descendants will be “Yaakov,” and times when they will be “Yisrael.”
Concerning the first of our questions, however — the question of why this dynamic dialectic must come into existence twice, and why specifically to happen when it does — there is no clear consensus.
I would suggest that to understand why that is we must travel back decades, to Yaakov’s first encounter with his God at Beit El, on the eve of his difficult initial departure from the land of Israel. Then, the patriarch wakes up from his dramatic dream of divine reassurance and utters a vow: “If God will indeed be with me, and will guide me on this path upon which I now travel, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return in peace to the home of my father, the Lord will be my God… And this stone that I have erected as a monument will be a House of God. And of all that he gives to me, I will offer a tenth.”
Readers across the ages, scholars and novices alike, are rightly confounded by this vow. Can it be that the patriarch is making his allegiance to God conditional?
The statement “and the Lord will be my God” is particularly troubling. Is Yaakov actually saying that the Lord will be his God only if certain conditions are met? And if they are not met, then what? God will not be his God? Inconceivable!
The fact that Yaakov’s apparent demands call into question the very assurances that God just delivered to him in his dream further compounds the problem.
While many approaches are suggested to explain this puzzling vow, it remains for a group of scholars, notably among them Nachmanides, to suggest that we simply are reading the patriarch’s vow incorrectly. The phrase “and the Lord will be my God,” is not part of Yaakov’s demands. It is part of his promise.
Upon awakening from his dream, Yaakov turns to God and declares:
My Lord God, you made me two promises in my dream. You promised to be with me wherever I may go, and you promised to bring me back to my land. The problem is, Lord, that these two assurances are potentially contradictory. If you will indeed be with me in wherever I am, if you are not tied, like the gods of the people around me to a particular land, then why must I come back?
And so, God, I promise that I will understand. No matter how successful I may be in exile, no matter how comfortable I may become, I will return to this land. Because I now realize that while you will always be with me, you will only fully be my God when I return. “The Lord will be my God” completely only when I am in the land of Israel.
With this bold promise, Jacob details the balance defining the physical and spiritual journey that will mark not only his own life, but the story of his progeny, the Jewish people, across a long and storied history. Against great odds, they will survive — even sometimes thrive — in land after land across the world. They will be challenged, however, to keep their destination clear. They will be challenged to recognize, as did their forefather before them, that they can be complete with their God only upon their return to Israel. And they will be challenged to promise, as Yaakov boldly did at Beit El on that fateful morning, to come home.
The only problem is, however, that Yaakov himself does not keep his promise, at least not of his own volition. After 20 years in the house of Lavan, the patriarch needs to experience another dream, one in which God directly commands him to fulfill his vow by returning to Israel, before he actually does so.
And when Yaakov does return, he confronts two towering obstacles that forever will stand in the way of the fulfillment of his own, and his children’s destiny; obstacles around which the Yaakov–Yisrael dynamic always will continue to swirl.
First the patriarch confronts an external challenge. He struggles in the darkness with a mysterious stranger, according to midrashic tradition the angel of his brother, Esav, in a conflict that lasts “until the break of dawn.” How prescient is much of the rabbinic interpretation of this enigmatic struggle, viewing it as a prophetic metaphor for the ongoing hostility of an outside world to the Jew. Hostility that even in our day, in the face of overwhelming historical and archeological evidence, would deny the Jewish people’s unique connection to their land; hostility that seems destined to last until the “dawn breaks” on the messianic era and the full change of Yaakov’s name to Yisrael.
But a second, even greater, obstacle remains. This quiet obstacle becomes apparent when God has to appear and push Yaakov yet again with the directive “Arise, and go to Beit El and dwell there, and make there an altar to God who appeared to you as you fled from Esav, your brother.”
Strikingly, it seems that absent God’s intervention, Yaakov again does not move to fulfill the specifics of his vow. Can it be that he has temporarily lost the clarity of vision that was his during his first interface with God at Beit El? Has he forgotten that his return to the land is not complete until he discharges his spiritual obligations at Beit El, until he again recognizes that the primary reason for the superiority of the Land of Israel is that only there “the Lord will be his God?”
In fact, even after Yaakov does meet this second challenge at God’s behest, his name change remains incomplete. It is an ever-present reminder that the patriarch again will have to struggle with his own inertia and loss of vision over his lifetime. It is an ever-present reminder that these obstacles will confront his progeny as the greatest impediment to the attainment of their own destiny across time.
A few months ago, after a 40-year career in the active pulpit rabbinate, my wife and I made aliyah from the United States to Israel. Since then, for a variety of blessed personal and professional reasons, I have spent more time in the States than in Israel; a situation that will remedy itself, please God, within a couple of weeks. Clearly, I am far from a seasoned oleh. My experience as an Israeli citizen is, to date, sorely limited.
Nonetheless, my short time in Israel has resulted in a personal revelation that has been nothing short of transformative for me.
I have come to recognize something I should have known all along: The most significant aspect of living in Israel is life in Israel.
As proof of this fact, consider that the most powerful moments that I have experienced in Israel so far have been the unexpected ones…
Walking down Emek Refaim in Jerusalem with my teudat zehut (Israeli identification card) in my pocket, I suddenly stop in my tracks, look around, and realize: I’m not a visitor anymore. Although I’ve been to Israel countless times before, it’s never been like this. I’m now a participant in the greatest religious and societal experiment in world history. After thousands of years, we’ve come back. I am now part of that return. I am one with those around me.
Standing at the Kotel in prayer always has been difficult for me. I’ve always felt a sense of pressure: Who knows when I’ll be back. I have got to grab the moment. I have to feel something. This time, however, is different. In the middle of my tefillot, I relax: I can come back anytime. The Kotel and all it represents is now part of my life. It’s mine.
Sitting on a bus, talking quietly with my wife about our aliyah, suddenly two women in front of us who do not know each other, and certainly do not know us, join the conversation. And it’s as if we’ve known each other all our lives. Mazal tov, beruchim haba’im, welcome, we are so happy that you’re here. The preliminaries are unnecessary. Immediately we are family. I admit that there are times when you want to strangle your Israeli “brother” who just pushed ahead of you on line, but when push comes to shove, you’re family. And that same Israeli would drop anything to help you at a moment’s notice.
After all, that’s what family’s about.
Life simply is different in Israel. It’s more real, it’s more immediate, it’s more powerful, it’s more meaningful.
As the passage of time places greater stress upon the definition of “Zionism” in a world where many Jews continue to live in a diaspora of choice, we must openly and unapologetically return to the original balance of our historical journey. We must recognize the Jew’s ability to thrive and contribute in the Diaspora, yet unabashedly argue and advocate for the ultimate goal of life in Israel.
The healthy preservation and transmission of this difficult balance, I believe, will rest upon our ability to distinguish between guilt and discomfort. Diaspora Jews should not feel, nor should they be made to feel, guilty over their choice to remain where they are. Aliyah is not for everyone right now, and there can be valid reasons for preserving your own personal status quo. At the same time, however, those who remain in the diaspora must, of their own volition, experience an ongoing healthy dose of existential discomfort. They must find a way to recognize and teach their children, in positive terms, the truth ultimately recognized by Yaakov, a truth that remains concretely valid to this day.
The most important reason to return to Israel is the nature of life in Israel. There and only there, our land is our land, our people are our people, and our God is our God.
And, if the perpetuation and the teaching of that truth ultimately does lead to increased aliyah in this generation or the next, then all the better. For only when we finally all come home, will we fully become Yisrael.
Until a few months ago, Shmuel Goldin was the long-time senior rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.