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Yisrael and Ya'akov - Parashat Vayishlach 5780 - December 13, 2019

The Jewish people are called b’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel. The name Yisrael has its roots in our parasha.

Upon leaving the company of Lavan, Yaakov embarks on his return to Cana’an. Yaakov, preparing for a potential confrontation, sends angels to Esav who dwelt in Edom – far south of where Yaakov was at Ma’avar Yabok in the north. The angels return to Yaakov to tell him that Esav is already on the road – headed to meet with him. Yaakov, anticipating a fight, becomes fearful.

On the evening prior to his fateful meeting with Esav, Yaakov encounters a man – understood by our Rabbis to be the guardian angel of Esav. The angel struggles with Yaakov and they end in a draw. Yaakov’s thigh is damaged. The angel declares, “What is your name?” Yaakov responds, “Yaakov!” The angel continues, “Your name will no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael (Israel), because you have struggled with the Lord and with men – and you have been able (to overcome).” It is through this incident that Jacob acquired the name, Israel.

The acquisition of new names is not an infrequent occurrence throughout the Torah. Avraham’s name was changed from Avram. Sarah’s name was changed from Sarai. Yehoshua’s name is changed from Hoshea. Yaakov’s name is seemingly changed by this adversary to Yisrael. Apparently, for this reason, we are 
b’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel – not b’nei Yaakov – the children of Yaakov.

chachamim explain that this renaming was unique. In the cases of Avraham, Sarah and Yehoshua, these individuals were given a replacement name. However, Jacob was given an alternate name by this adversary – the name Israel. Upon leaving the struggle with the angel, Yaakov had two names – Yaakov and Yisrael. A substitute name conveys a totally new identity created upon by an awareness or change in circumstance. An alternate name is a more subtle change. Such a name conveys an additional dimension or mission in a person. Consider, for example, a stage name or a pseudonym. Alternate names are used situationally.

Ohr HaChayim, Rabbenu Chayyim Ben-Attar, explains that in general, the Torah calls Yaakov by the name Yaakov during a period of struggle in his life and by the name Yisrael during a period of spiritual calmness or spiritual resolution. The name Yaakov – Yaakov’s given name – refers to struggle – the struggle of Yaakov holding onto his brother, Esav’s, heel. While this name originated to describe his struggle with his brother Esav, Yaakov is also an apt description of his life – a life of confrontation and struggle that originated in Rivkah’s womb and lasted for 130 years. After confronting the adversary, Yaakov now had another name – Yisrael. This name is used to describe the resulting peace that Yaakov experienced in the wake of conflict, a type of spiritual serenity.

Interestingly, throughout our 
parasha, Yaakov is not called Yisrael. Later in our parasha, for example, two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, acted violently to protect their sister, Dinah. In this incident, these children are called b’nei Yaakov, instead of the appellation, b’nei Yisrael, Based on the Ohr HaChayim’s explanation, we can readily understand why this name is used in this situation. The term b’nei – the sons of – refers to Shimon and Levi cooperating towards a specific aim. The term Yaakov – Jacob – conveys their aim represents a struggle. Yaakov’s children were struggling together to exact justice from Shechem. Therefore, they are called b’nei Yaakov – a communal struggle – one group identified with one aim. There is, however, another type of collective – a community built on spiritual harmony. The Jewish People are typically called b’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel. This name conveys our aim – that of a collective based on spiritual serenity.

Based on the Ohr HaChayim’s explanation we can delineate two purposes or aims of the Jewish community – solidarity to strengthen ourselves in conflicts that we may have with the world at large. This purpose is conveyed by the term 
b’nei Yaakov. However, there is another, equally important aim that we have – the responsibility to support ourselves in strengthening our internal values - this aim is conveyed by the term b’nei Yisrael.


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