What’s in a name? In the Torah, quite a bit. Throughout the Torah, names of our ancestors are not only monikers but also literary insights into the personality, nature, and destiny of the individual. The Talmud (Brachos 7a) even says that one’s name influences one’s actions. In this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov (Jacob) receives a name change. At the end of the scene in which the angel and Yaakov wrestle, the following conversation occurs (Bereishis (Genesis) 32:28-29):
So he [the angel] said to him [Yaakov], “What is your name?” and he said, “Yaakov.” And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov but Yisrael (Israel)…”
One would assume that after this episode, Yaakov would always to be referred to as Yisrael. However, this is not the case. When Avram becomes Avraham and when Sarai becomes Sarah, their names change for the duration of the Torah’s description of them. Why is Yaakov/Yisrael different?
The Gemara (Brachos 13a) discusses this very topic. The Gemara explains that first Avram was av (father) of Aram (the town where he was born) and that later he became av of the whole world (av hamon goyim). Sarai, in the singular, means “empress of her nation”; her name was changed to the plural Sarah, to mean “empress of the whole world.” Subsequent in the Gemara is a discussion regarding how, from the time their names were changed, it is forbidden to call them by their old names- it would actually be considered a transgression of a mitzvah. The Gemara points out that this is not the case for Yaakov/Yisrael. Therefore, his name is only an alias and not a complete change. It also may be of significance that Hashem renames those whose names stick, while an angel renames Yaakov.
Since, as discussed above, names are integral to the understanding of people in the Torah, it must be that Yaakov still retained some of his Yaakov-esque personality traits even when he became Yisrael. Avraham and Sarah, from an etymological point of view, could no longer just be Avram and Sarai- they were more than what those names meant now.
What does Yaakov mean? Yaakov means “heel.” He received this name at birth because he was born grabbing the heel of and being stepped on by his older brother, Esav. This became a good name for Yaakov because he would have to deal with the difficulties of the world via his interactions with his brother. He was also a simple man- a man of the tent, a humble man.
What does Yisrael mean? Yisrael means to “persevere with Hashem.” He received this name by the angel because he embodied its meaning.
Therefore, at the triumphant times of Yaakov/Yisrael he uses the name Yisrael and at times of humility, he uses the name Yaakov. The best example of this can be found in Bereishis 46:1-2. In these verses, Yisrael triumphantly travels to Egypt to see his son, Yosef. However, all of a sudden, Hashem appears to him and refers to him as “Yaakov, Yaakov.” This is done, perhaps, as a way to humble the patriarch for his journey to Egypt would lead to the eventual exile of the Jewish people.
The duality of the individual is a terrific lesson for anyone. Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) says in his commentary to Bereishis 12:6 that “maaseh avos siman l’banim,” the lives of the forefathers foreshadow the lives of their descendants. We all have high and low moments in life. However, within each one of these moments we should always be refocusing ourselves in order to gain a fuller perspective of ourselves in every situation. Integral to our growth is knowing who we are.
The Sfas Emes (the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) points out tht when Yaakov says “Im Lavan garti”, “I lived with Lavan,” he is really saying that he was able to live within a lower world despite the fact that he was on such a high level of spirituality. Rashi suggests that if one switches around the letter of “garti” (lived) it becomes “taryag” (the word symbolizing the 613 mitzvos.) This shows us that Yaakov was able to bring a unique aspect of himself into the world of Lavan. He brought the holy into the profane.
A way that we can contemplate “maaseh avos siman l’banim” in regard to Yaakov’s life is by being aware of how the multifaceted nature of our individuality allows us to better hone and train our senses for the world that is around us. We should always be able to take aspects of our past with us when we enter new walks of life. We should never feel the need to sacrifice part of ourselves in order to grow fully. As well, we will be able to infuse the aspects of kedusha (holiness) that we have into all situations, similar to that of Yaakov.
May we all be blessed to be able to find within ourselves all the ingredients and aspects necessary to live a life of meaning and kedusha no matter where you find yourself.
by Rabbi Mordechai Weissmann