“What’s in a Name?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Parashat Vayishlach seems to be a virtual endurance test for poor Jacob.

In this parasha, Jacob at last encounters his brother Esau who has sworn to murder him and avenge the theft of his father’s blessing. Jacob also battles with an angel (presumably the representative of Esau) and prevails. He settles in Shechem seeking some respite, only to have his daughter kidnaped and raped by Shechem, the son of Chamor the Hittite.

After all this, G-d appears to Jacob and blesses him, saying (Genesis 35:10): “Shim’cha Yaakov; lo yee’ka’ray shim’cha ohd Yaakov, kee im Yisrael yeeh’yeh sh’meh’cha, va’yikra et sh’moh Yisrael.” Your name is Jacob. You shall not always be named Jacob, but Israel shall be your name, He thus named him Israel.

This, however, is not the first time that Jacob is given the name Israel. Earlier in the parasha, Jacob wrestled with an angel. Dawn had broken, and the angel desperately wanted to leave. At that point, Jacob receives a new name. The angel asks his protagonist, “What is your name?” He answers, “Jacob.” The angel then says (Genesis 32:29): “Lo Yaakov yay’ah’mer ohd shim’cha, kee im Yisrael, kee sa’ree’ta im Eh’lo’kim v’im ah’nah’shim vah’too’chal,” No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with Divine and with human and have prevailed.

The Mizrachi (R’ Eliyahu Mizrachi, 1450-1525, of Constantinople, author of the basic supercommentary on Rashi’s Torah commentary) states that the angel with whom he wrestled was not renaming Jacob, nor was the name change to be effective immediately. The angel was merely revealing what G-d Himself would later do.

That, in fact, is what the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) says is the meaning of the phrase “shim’cha Yaakov,” your name is Jacob–that even though the Lord of Esau (the angel with whom Jacob struggled) changed your name, you are still not called Israel, for it was not his mission to do so. It also means that the name Jacob is not being taken away, it will still remain.

The issue really devolves about the meaning of the Hebrew word “ohd.” When G-d says to Jacob, “Lo yee’karay shim’cha ohd Yaakov,” He does not mean that you shall no longer be called Jacob, but rather that you shall not always be called Jacob. The Ibn Ezra (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) interprets the word “ohd” to mean “only”–you shall no longer be called only Jacob. The conclusion of the verse:”Kee im Yisrael yeeh’yeh sh’meh’cha,” means that Israel shall also be your name, but not exclusively.

Since G-d Himself later refers to him as Jacob (Genesis 46:2), it is obvious that the name Jacob was not to be abolished. Rather the name Jacob would be a “subsidiary” to his new principal name, Yisrael.

This is quite different from Abraham, whose name change was permanent. In fact, those who refer to Abraham by his old name, “Abram,” transgress a negative command (Genesis 22:39). What the verse “shim’cha Yaakov” then means, is that your name is Jacob and will always remain Jacob, even though a new name is being added. In the case of Abraham, the name change was absolute.

When Abraham’s name was changed, it was a permanent change because his destiny and fortune changed as well. Previously he was not worthy of having children who would inherit him, but now he was going to be a father of great nations. Besides, it was Terach who gave his son the name Abram, but it was G-d who changed it to Abraham. Jacob, on the other hand, was named through Divine inspiration.

Rabbeinu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher 1263-1340, Biblical commentator of the Golden Age of Spain) maintains that the name Jacob will continue to be used in matters of physical and mundane nature, while the name Israel will always refer to spiritual matters. Others maintain that the name Jacob is always mentioned when referring to matters of Jacob’s immediate family, but the name Israel is used when events impact on the future destiny of the People of Israel.

There are those who suggest that Jacob was only called Israel in the Holy Land. However, in exile he was referred to as Jacob. At times when he was out of the land of Israel he was called both, but Jacob was the primary name.

Eliyahu KiTov (1912-1976, one of Israel’s most acclaimed religious writers) suggests that there was a subtle but important message in the name change. When G-d appears to Jacob and speaks to him, He speaks in the name “Eh’lo’kim,” implying that just as G-d has several names and is sometimes referred to as Hashem (the Tetragrammaton), and sometimes as Eh’lo’kim, the G-d of Power, so you [Jacob] also have several names, and that your name Jacob will be eternal.

In addition, suggests KiTov, the name “Yaakov” (whose root is the word “ekev,” meaning heel or end) implies that your children will survive eternally, until the end of days. This name, says the Al-mighty, which has been given to you by your holy fathers, will never be nullified or cease to exist. Even though your enemies regard the name Jacob as emblematic of deception and crookedness, in the end of days, everyone will recognize that Jacob was straight and honest from beginning to end.

What’s in a name? When we are called Israel it implies that we have wrestled with G-d and with man and have prevailed. It is a powerful name, with powerful implications. One would think that it should be a permanent name as well. Nevertheless, in the real world we still need Jacob, the man who is able to engage in subterfuge in order to survive, and who is able to strike back at those who are trying to undermine and undo him.

Without “Jacob,” we could not survive. Without “Israel,” we could not flourish.

May you be blessed.