No longer shall your name be called Yaakov; rather, Yisrael shall be your name. For you have struggled with the Divine and with men, and you have prevailed.
So said the angel with whom Yaakov wrestled for a night prior to his historic encounter with Eisav. Later, we read that G‑d Himself appeared to Yaakov and reiterated the change of his name to Yisrael (Israel).
Avraham, too, had his name changed (from Avram) by G‑d. But with Avraham, the change was absolute; the Talmud goes so far as to say, “Whoever calls Avraham ‘Avram’ violates a prohibition of the Torah, as it is written, ‘No longer shall your name be called Avram.’” Yaakov, too, was told, “No longer shall your name be called Yaakov,” yet the Torah continues to call him by both names, often alternating between Yaakov and Yisrael in a single narrative, or even a single verse. The Jewish people, who carry the name of their exclusive ancestor, are also called both “Yaakov” and “Yisrael.”
Avraham’s name change, which came about when he circumcised himself by command of G‑d, marked his elevation from Avram (“exalted father”) to Avraham (“exalted father of the multitudes”). The name Avraham includes all the letters, and meaning, of Avram; the change was the introduction of an additional letter (the letter hei) and role. Thus, to call Avraham “Avram” is to reduce him to his prior self and significance.
On the other hand, Yaakov and Yisrael are two different names, with two different meanings. While it is true that Yisrael represents a loftier state of being than Yaakov (thus the Yisrael element in Yaakov is “no longer Yaakov”), there are certain virtues to the Yaakov state that the Yisrael state cannot possess. So Yaakov remains a name for both the third Patriarch and for the Jewish people as a whole. Yisrael might represent a higher stage in the Jew’s development than Yaakov, but the greatness of the Jewish people lies in that there are both “Yaakov Jews” and “Yisrael Jews,” and “Yaakov” and “Yisrael” elements within each individual Jew.
The Spiritual Warrior
One insight into the difference between the Yaakov and Yisrael personalities is offered by Bilam, the pagan prophet who was summoned to curse the Jewish people and ended up mouthing one of the most beautiful odes to Jewish life and destiny contained in the Torah.
In the second of Bilam’s curses-turned-blessings, there is a verse in which he proclaims: “[G‑d] sees no guilt in Yaakov, nor toil in Yisrael” (Bamidbar 23:21). This implies that Yaakov does experience toil, though his struggles and difficulties do not result in his guilt in the eyes of G‑d. Yisrael, on the other hand, enjoys a tranquil existence, devoid not only of guilt but also of toil.
The Torah gives us two interpretations of the name Yaakov. Yaakov was born grasping the heel of his elder twin, Eisav; thus he was named “Yaakov,” which means “at the heel.” Years later, when Yaakov disguised himself as Eisav to receive the blessings that Yitzchak intended to give the elder brother, Eisav proclaimed: “No wonder he is called Yaakov (“cunning”)! Twice he has deceived me: he has taken my birthright, and now he has taken my blessings.”
Yaakov is the Jew still in the thick of the battle of life, a battle in which he is often “at the heel”—dealing with the lowliest aspects of his own personality and of his environment. A battle which he must wage with furtiveness and stealth, for he is in enemy territory and must disguise his true intentions in order to outmaneuver those who attempt to ensnare him. Threatened by a hostile world, plagued by his own shortcomings and negative inclinations, the Yaakov Jew has yet to transcend the axiomatic condition of his humanity—the fact that “man is born to toil” and that human life is an obstacle course of challenges to one’s integrity.
G‑d sees no guilt in Yaakov, for despite all that Yaakov must face, he has been granted the capacity to meet his every detractor. Even if he momentarily succumbs to some internal or external challenge, he never loses his intrinsic goodness and purity, which ultimately asserts itself no matter how much it has been repressed by the travails of life. But while he might be free of sin, he is never free of toil, of the struggle to maintain his sinless state. For Yaakov, the war of life rages ever on, regardless of how many of its battles he has won.
Yisrael (“Divine master”), on the other hand, is the name given to Yaakov when he “has struggled with the Divine and with men, and has prevailed.” Yisrael is the Jew who has prevailed over his own humanity, so completely internalizing the intrinsic perfection of his soul that he is now immune to all challenges and temptations; the Jew who has prevailed over the Divine decree that “man is born to toil,” carving out for himself a tranquil existence amidst the turbulence of life.
Thus, “Yaakov” is the name reserved for us when we are referred to as G‑d’s “servants,” while “Yisrael” is G‑d’s name of choice when He speaks of us as His “children.” The defining element of the servant’s life is his service to his master. The child, too, serves his father, but their relationship is such that his service is not toil but pleasure. What for the servant is work, imposed upon a resisting self and environment, is for the child the harmonious realization of his identity as the extension of his father’s essence.
The first part of Yaakov’s life was consumed by his struggles with his brother Eisav—a struggle which began in the womb, continued through their contest over the bechorah (firstborn’s birthright) and their father’s blessings, and culminated in Yaakov’s all-night battle with the angel of Eisav and the brothers’ face-to-face encounter the next day. In the interim, Yaakov also spent 20 toil-filled years tending the sheep of Lavan “the Deceiver”—years during which “heat consumed me by day and frost at night, and sleep was banished from my eyes,” and he was forced to become Lavan’s “brother in deception.” Yaakov’s name-change to Yisrael marked the point at which he graduated from a servant of G‑d to G‑d’s child, from an existence defined by struggle and strife to a harmonious realization of his relationship with G‑d.
Sweet And Sour
Yet even after he was named Yisrael, Yaakov continued to be Yaakov as well. The Torah continues to use his old name along with the new. The events of his life now include periods of tranquillity (such as the 9 years from his return to the Holy Land from Charan until the sale of Yosef, and the 17 years he lived in Egypt), but also periods of strife (i.e., the 22 years he mourned his beloved Yosef).
As the father of the People of Israel, Yaakov was the model for both states of the Jew: the tranquil child of G‑d, at peace with himself, his G‑d and his society, whose harmonious life is a beacon of light and enlightenment to his surroundings; and the embattled servant of G‑d, grappling with his self and character, his relationship with G‑d, and his place in the world. For the Yaakov state is not merely a prerequisite stage toward the attainment of the Yisrael state, but an end in itself, an indispensable role in the Creator’s blueprint for life on earth.
In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Tanya, chapter 27): “There are two types of pleasure before G‑d. The first is from the complete abnegation of evil and its transformation from bitterness to sweetness and from darkness to light by the tzaddikim. The second is when evil is repelled while it is still at its strongest and mightiest . . . through the initiative of the beinonim . . . The analogy for this is physical food, in which there are two types of delicacies that give pleasure: the first being the pleasure derived from sweet and pleasant foods; and the second, from sharp and sour foods, which are spiced and prepared in such a way that they become delicacies that revive the soul.”
Based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 10 Shevat 5718 (January 31, 1958); adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.