Last week in Parshat Vayetze, we followed Yaakov, who fled his parents’ home to escape the murderous wrath of his brother Esau, who felt cheated by Yaakov out of his birthright. After living for twenty years with his father-in-law Lavan, a most dishonest trickster, and becoming a successful cattle rancher, the text tells us in Gen. 31:2 that Yaakov sees for the first time the “true face of Lavan,” sees him for the rapacious man he is. Yaakov fears he is becoming like his father-in-law and knows he must escape Lavan’s influence. He then hears God telling him to “return home to the land of your forefathers and I will be with you.” (Gen. 31:3) Yaakov confidently sets in motion a plan to return to Caanan.
The Yaakov we meet in Vayishlakh is someone who knows a lot, has a lot, and is able to do a lot for his own and his family’s welfare. But there is some crucial work yet to be done if he is to become man enough to stand up to Esau. The night before their fateful encounter, he crosses the River Yabok, and wrestles all night with an Ish, a mysterious “other,” which various commentators have translated either as a man sent by Esau; an angel of God who represents the spirit of Esau; or with himself, the man Yaakov is trying to become, a man of moral principles and ethical behavior.
As dawn breaks, the Ish talks with Yaakov:
“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ He (Yaakov) replied: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He answered, ‘Yaakov.’ He said ‘No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.'” (Gen. 32:26-28)
The invitation to Yaakov to disclose his name is probably a rhetorical device for Yaakov to think deeply about the meaning of his name and the mission of his life as defined by his name. The new name, Yisrael, represents Yaakov’s transformation into a person with the power and commitment to contend with all that will confront him while succeeding to hold his moral compass intact. That is indeed a blessing.
But if Yaakov truly earns the name Yisrael, how come the Torah itself and Jewish tradition refer to him many times by his former name, Yaakov? After his transformation, we would expect him to be able to ascend the ladder to God he dreamt about in Beit El. Yet, even after his self-validation, after everything has worked out with Esau, the text goes out of its way to still call him Yaakov:
“And Yaakov came shalem (whole) to the city of Shkhem in the land of Canaan…” (Gen. 33:18).
We are forced to conclude that even in Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov is still Yaakov. Why? None of the other biblical characters who get name changes are referred to by their old names. What is the significance of Yaakov retaining his old name while also having a new name, Yisrael?
Both names indicate the necessity for continuing two sets of contradictory character traits and responses for different circumstances of his life, and, by extension, for different times in the history of his descendants, the Jewish people. The name Yaakov bespeaks subservience, second-tier status, being in the background while seeking opportunities to burst forward. It projects the “promise” that Yaakov/the Jewish people will many times have to be alone, wrestling with uncertainty, even infirmity. Our worth as a people, in others’ and in our own eyes, will be lowered by our temporary incapacity to fight our battles head on. Gen. 32:33 insinuates that the wound to Yaakov’s thigh remains “to this day,” meaning that individual and collective Jewish life will be imperfect, wounded. The key is to continue the fight against our interior character flaws and external hits to our equanimity because, if we do, we will give birth to a new dawn, a new reality called Yisrael.
Yisrael is connected to the Hebrew root sar, which means prince or lord, connoting eminence, nobility. Yaakov needs to become Yisrael, patriarch of the twelve tribes. To his son Joseph, Yaakov appears as the iconic image of Abba, pure moral strength and integrity, which directs Joseph to be the Yisrael the family will need in Egypt. Talmud Brakhot 13a teaches that through Yisrael we fulfill our mission to present God and goodness to the world, and help redeem the world. But Yaakov the struggler is critically needed, as well.
As we approach Chanukah, the Holiday of Lights, let us remember to shine light on our inner selves and bring out our best character. One of the best lights we have is the light of a good question: Mah shimkhah, what is your name? What is the name we are given and how do we use it to define ourselves? And what is the name we are capable of becoming? Like Yaakov, we can rearrange ourselves, ask for new blessings for ourselves, and use our capacities to bless others. Then our inner light as Yisrael can shine more clearly onto others and we will indeed become a blessing for the world.