Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayishlach
To dedicate this lesson

The Name Game


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Kislev 14 5780
I think it’s pretty safe to say that we Jews have an identity crisis; who are we, after all? Are we religious, or secular? Are we Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Conservadox?" Are we American or Israeli Jews, or are we Jewish Americans or Israelis? Are we Ashkenaz, Sfard or AshkeSfard?

But don’t think that this is a new syndrome; it’s actually been with us since, well, since we became a nation! And it’s epitomized by Yakov, the true father of our people.

Following his epic wrestling match in our sedra (famously known in sports lore as the "Tangle with the Angel") a new name is bestowed upon Yakov:

"No longer shall your name be Yakov; but rather Yisrael, for you have striven with G-d & Man, & prevailed."

Fair enough. But then, immediately after this blessing, the Torah calls Yisrael: Yakov! And he continues to be called Yakov countless more times in Tanach. And we refer to him 3 times a day (or more) in the Amida as "Yakov." In fact, while we all are known collectively as "Bnei Yisrael," the name "Yakov" does not disappear – as did the name "Avram" – so that we possess not one, but two names!

What’s going on here? Are we Yakov, Yisrael, or both?!

We know that a person’s inner essence, his soul, is indicated – if not determined – by his name; that is why the word "shem," name, forms the inside of the word "neshama." Yakov’s name literally means, "heel;" as he hung on to brother Esav’s heel at birth. But "heel" has a less than complimentary connotation. Because it is a hidden part of the body, it connects to secrecy, or subterfuge. In more common usage, it refers to one who acts in underhanded or odious fashion; a "heel" is a rather unsavory character.

Now Yakov is meant to be a man of Truth; he is the patriarch who most represents Torah, which is called Torat Emet. He even tells his mother, "Anochi ish chalak," I am straight, honest. And yet, he is continually involved in one shady deal after another: the Birthright, the switching of his wives, the abduction of Dina & massacre of Shechem, the kidnapping of Yosef.

The angel blesses him and tells him he is Yisrael," a name that contains within it the word, "Yashar," straight, forthright, decent. But Yakov will struggle all his life to come to grips with having to choose between doing that which is completely above board, & that which he deems necessary in order to survive the many challenging trials that come his way. He will aspire to be "Yisrael," but yet retain his persona of "Yakov."

To this day, we wage the very same battle that Yakov/Yisrael waged. The world has made "Jew" a pejorative term, not a compliment. We are accused of taking others’ land, of being clever, devious connivers. But we know that we have a higher pedigree; we are the prime representatives of G-d, who is ultimate Truth; we embody the noblest traits, the highest standards of morality & goodness. It is we who were chosen to reveal the light of Hashem, to set the standard for holy behavior.

Both as a People and as a nation, we are "Israel" – or at least we can, & always should be.
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