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Ya'akov and Yisrael

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Ya'akov and Yisrael

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


After Ya'akov asks the angel (with whom he has fought all night long) to bless him, the angel tells him:

"Your name will no longer be called Ya'akov, but rather Yisrael, for you have striven with God and with men and you have prevailed." (32:28)

He is given a similar message from God Himself, later on in the parasha: "Your name Ya'akov - your name will no longer be called Ya'akov, but rather your name will be Yisrael" (35:10). What is the meaning of this repetition? Why does God tell Ya'akov something that he has already been told by the angel?

We may suggest that in order to give the message greater validity and importance, it is uttered by God Himself. Rashi's understanding (32:28) would seem to go further than this: the angel informed Ya'akov only that sometime in the future God would change his name:

"... Eventually God will reveal Himself to you at Beit El and will change your name, and there He will bless you, and I shall be there and I shall consent."

But we may explain the repetition a different way, in light of the difference between the words of the angel and those of God. There are two differences between the verses:

  1. The angel says that Ya'akov will no longer be called Ya'akov, but rather ONLY Yisrael, while what seems to arise from God's message is that he will still be called Ya'akov: "Your name Ya'akov - you will no longer be called..." The opening words, "Your name Ya'akov," seem to suggest that his name will still be Ya'akov, but that he will also be called Yisrael.
  2. The angel gives a reason for the change in name: "for you have striven with God and with men and you have prevailed," while God gives no reason.

The gemara (Berakhot 12b) records a disagreement between the Sages and Ben Zoma concerning whether there will be any commemoration of the exodus from Egypt in the messianic age. The Sages maintained that the exodus would still be remembered then, since it is an event that will never be forgotten; it would simply pale into a secondary status in light of the future redemption. As a parallel they bring the example of Ya'akov, who was told, "Your name will no longer be called Ya'akov, but rather your name will be Yisrael." The message is "not that 'Ya'akov' will be uprooted, but rather that 'Yisrael' will be primary, and 'Ya'akov' secondary."

A little further on in the gemara (13a) we are told,

"Bar Kapra taught: Anyone who calls Avraham 'Avram' transgresses a positive command, as it is written, 'And your name will be Avraham.' R. Elazar said: He transgresses a negative command, as it is written, 'And your name will no longer be called Avram.'"

Further along the gemara questions why no such transgression exists in the case of Ya'akov's name, and explains that God Himself calls Ya'akov 'Ya'akov' at a later time (Bereishit 46:2). We need to understand why this prohibition exists in the case of Avraham but not in the case of Ya'akov.

We may understand the difference in light of the context of the change of name. Avraham's name changed in the context of the brit mila (Bereishit 17). Avraham's circumcision was in effect a process of conversion. Until that point he was a gentile from the point of view of his lineage, and prior to Yitzchak's birth God wanted him to convert in order that Yitzchak would have a Jewish lineage. Conversion is in fact a re-birth. This is true both halakhically (in principle, he may marry female relatives) and also fundamentally - the convert exchanges all his values and forgets everything that he previously believed in. The change in name symbolizes a similar idea: Avraham became a new person. It is therefore obvious why we should not refer to Avraham by his previous name, which expresses what he was prior to his conversion. In Ya'akov's case, on the other hand, the change in name represents not the creation of a new person but rather simply the addition of another aspect of his personality; therefore he was still called Ya'akov and there is no prohibition involved in referring to him thus.

We may understand the difference between Avraham and Ya'akov in a different way. The gemara (Berahkot 13a) explains that "Avram" means "father of Aram," while "Avraham" means "father of the whole world." We may understand this as a blessing - "Until now you have been a sort of patron to Aram; today you become a patron to the entire world." But it appears that this change has a much deeper significance.

The mishna (Bikkurim 1:4) teaches that a convert brings his first fruits to the Temple but does not recite the traditional recitation over them, since he is unable to say "the land which you gave TO OUR FOREFATHERS." The Jerusalem Talmud quotes the opinion of R. Yehuda, who maintains that a convert should indeed recite this phrase, since God says of Avraham, "The father of a multitude of nations have I made you." This means that "previously you were the head of a household of Aram; from now onwards you are the father of all nations." The Rambam, in his responsum to R. Ovadia the Proselyte, explains that what R. Yehuda means is that it was Avraham who taught the world monotheism, bringing many to believe in God, and therefore anyone who converts to Judaism in any generation is considered a disciple of Avraham and a member of his household. "The father of a multitude of nations" is not simply a title, but rather a declaration that Avraham is considered the father of all converts. (One practical outcome of this is that converts are able to pray with the words, "Our God and God of our fathers.")

Thus the change in Avraham's name had religious significance. The pagans believed that there were many divine representations in the world, each responsible for a different sphere: Aram had one god, Babylonia had another, etc. So long as Avraham was "father of Aram," one could be led to think that God, of whom Avraham was the earthly representative, ruled only over Aram and not over any other countries. When his name was changed to Avraham - "father of a multitude of nations" - it became clear that God ruled the entire world. Thus Avraham's new name in fact was intended to express monotheism. Although this idea is still not universally accepted, the time will come when "every creature will know that You are its Creator." In light of all of the above, it is clear why such a serious transgression is involved in calling Avraham "Avram:" it is almost an expression of paganism.

The change in Ya'akov's name has a completely different significance. The name Ya'akov hints at the "simple man who dwells in tents" - the straightforward student with complete faith, a person inexperienced in life's complications and someone unlikely to cope in the wide world; someone who has had no taste of struggle and battle. The name "Yisrael" is the complete opposite: "For you have striven with God and men and you have prevailed." This is a person who has faced adversity, struggled and emerged victorious; a person who has learned the intricacies of trickery at the hands of Lavan and nevertheless ended up in a stronger position; a person who has been strengthened by all his trials and tribulations; an experienced man with the power to prevail even over an angel.

The change in name is perceived differently by God and by the angel (the guardian angel of Esav). The latter perceives strength as the most important asset in life. He regards Ya'akov with admiration because he has accumulated so much experience of battles and victories; in contrast, he regards the Ya'akov of old with scorn - the miserable, powerless, inexperienced man he once was. It is no wonder that the angel blesses Ya'akov that he should no longer be called Ya'akov, but rather only Yisrael. It is as if the angel is telling him, "May your unfortunate past be forgotten, and may people look onlyat your present situation - at your power and strength." Clearly, too, he is reluctant to accept that he has lost the battle. To the simple Ya'akov he points out that the battle took place on the playing field of power and strength; he has lost, but to a person of great strength: "for you have striven with God and with men, and you have prevailed."

God, on the other hand, perceives the change in name from another perspective. It is clear to Him that the name Ya'akov is not to be cancelled, nor is it to be scorned. Simplicity and studiousness are of great importance, while power is a secondary characteristic. Experience and strength can certainly add, but one should not concentrate on them alone. Clearly the name Ya'akov will continue to exist, and there is no prohibition involved in calling Ya'akov by this name. Although the gemara in Berakhot (13a) implies that the name Yisrael is primary and the name Ya'akov secondary, the Midrash Rabba (78:3) suggests the opposite - that "Ya'akov" remains primary, and "Yisrael" is an addition of secondary importance.

The same idea applies to us. There are many people who follow the perception of Esav's guardian angel, regarding a simple Jew who studies as an outdated, exilic specimen. Many regard power and strength as more important characteristics, perceiving the greatness of Am Yisrael not in its heritage and its culture but rather in its military strength, in the many wars in which it has emerged victorious and the many battles which it has survived. We need to understand that this is not the case. Strength, power and physical survival are obviously important, but the most important ideals are service of God, study of Torah and simple faith.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Vayishlach 5752 [1993].)


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