parasha

Jacob and Israel – Two Names, Two Spiritual Attitudes

Vayishlach 5781

Parashat Vayishlach

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob’s name being changed:

And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed."

(Genesis 32, 29)

Jacob’s name was changed to Israel.  But, as opposed to Abraham whose name was changed from Abram to Abraham and the name Abram was erased, Jacob’s name was not.  He was still sometimes referred to as Jacob and other times as Israel.  This points to the possibility that these were two names referencing two identities that merged in the personality of Jacob-Israel.

The name Jacob was given to him at birth, but to understand it, we must go back to the months prior to his birth.  After Rebecca became pregnant, she began to feel odd movements in her belly, as it says: “And the children struggled within her, and she said, ‘If [it be] so, why am I [like] this?’” (Ibid 25, 22).  Rebecca went to ask the prophets Shem and Ever, and they told her that, “"Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger” (Ibid Ibid, 23). She discovered that the struggle she felt in her womb was only the beginning of the struggle between two nations.

When Rebecca gave birth, one baby came out first and his twin brother emerged after him while clutching his brother’s heel.  Apparently, he was trying to get the first baby back into his mother’s womb so he could be the firstborn.  The first one was called Esau and the second Jacob, for the Hebrew word for “heel.” Actually, in that first struggle, Jacob failed and came out second.  Years later, he bought the birthright of the firstborn son from Esau for a bowl of stew.  The name Jacob symbolizes his spiritual position in facing his brother; someone who grabs his brother’s heel and tries to chase and catch up with him.

Now, decades later, Jacob is returning from the home of his father-in-law in Aram Naharayim and is about to meet his brother Esau again.  He is very nervous about this meeting since the reason he escaped his father’s house twenty years earlier was because Esau threatened to kill him.  Jacob planned for this meeting with Esau in several ways: He sent him gifts ahead of time to appease him; he divided his camp into two to prepare for war; and he turned to G-d in prayer:

“Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children.”

(Ibid 32, 12)

Did G-d respond to Jacob? That same night, Jacob transferred his wives, children, and belongings across the river and returned alone to the other side to get the belongings that remained there.  When there alone, he experienced a violent encounter with an anonymous person who later identified himself as an angel.  All through the night, they wrestled with one another with Jacob calling upon his best skills and strength not to be taken down by the stranger. As dawn broke and the battle ended, the angel said to him, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed." The angel told him to change his attitude in regards to his brother – no longer clutching a heel, no longer pursuing a chance to overtake the older brother.  He had reached the goal he had set and now had the ability to fight.  After Jacob proved he could take an active stand, his name was changed to Israel as he prepared for the meeting with his brother.

The greatest sages of the Hassidic movement learned from these two names – Jacob and Israel – that there are two emotional/spiritual attitudes that one must be prepared to have in dealing with forbidden desires, with our “yetzer hara.”  One attitude requires a negotiation with these desires, a stand that assumes a diminished position and tries to attain the maximum – an attitude of Jacob.  But sometimes a person needs to fight, to have faith in his ability to overcome his desires and not give up on his spiritual aspirations.  This is an attitude of Israel.  A person, therefore, must identify the situation he is in and his emotional abilities and act accordingly.

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