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by Yoel Spotts    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

There are four times in the Torah when we find that a biblical figure undergoes a name change. The first two - Abraham and Sarah - we have already encountered in previous weeks, while the fourth, Joshua, will be read several months down the road.



There are four times in the Torah when we find that a biblical figure undergoes a name change. The first two - Abraham and Sarah - we have already encountered in previous weeks, while the fourth, Joshua, will be read several months down the road. The third such change, however, greets us in this week's Torah portion. First the wrestling angel, and then Hashem Himself, declare that Yaacov (Jacob) will now be addressed as Yisrael (Israel). Curiously, Jacob's transformation is markedly different from the other three. Once Abram became Abraham, he was never again addressed as Abram, his old name. The same is true concerning Sarah and Joshua (except for one instance to teach a lesson; see Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:44). Jacob, on the other hand, retained his old name. Subsequent to the struggle of the angel, both titles, Yaacov and Yisrael, were used interchangeably throughout the rest of the Torah. How does Jacob's transformation differ from the other three? Why was his "old" name retained?

Before we are ready to answer this question, we must step back and ask a couple of much more fundamental questions: What is the significance of having one's name changed? Or even more basic: What is the significance of a name? To answer these questions, let us turn back to the very first Torah portion, Parshat Bereishit. The Torah tells us that after Hashem created all the animals of the earth, He brought them to Adam so that he could name them. One by one, Adam provided a name for each of the animals. There, we are confronted with a similar question: Why does the Torah highlight this event? What is the significance of Adam naming all the animals? The commentators explain that the name chosen by Adam for each animal was not composed of arbitrary sounds selected for mere convention. Rather, the name indicated the essence and nature of the animal. Therefore, for example, a lion is called an aryeh in Hebrew because that name expresses precisely the very essence of the lion. Thus, only Adam, who at that time possessed a keen understanding of the inner workings of the entire universe, could possibly undertake such a profound project. So too it was with the names of the biblical figures. The names of our forefathers were not merely identifying features; they signified much more. Their names revealed their essence, their reason for living, their mission in life. The name is a reflection of the person.

Now we can better understand the significance of having one's name changed. If one's role in life - his destiny - is altered, by necessity his name must change as well. He is, in a sense, a new person and thus requires a new name. Let us briefly examine Abraham to demonstrate this concept. Avram, his Hebrew name given at birth, indicates that he would be the father of Aram. (The name Avram is a conjunction of two words - av (father) and aram.) That was to be his mission.

However, Hashem came to Avram and told him that because of his loyalty and faith in Hashem, his role was now to change. He would now be "the father of all the nations." His old name Avram, meaning father of Aram, was no longer relevant. Avraham became his sole name.

Now, let's return to Jacob. We wondered why he was still referred to as Yaacov even after his name was changed to Yisrael. What is the significance that he retained his old name? Based on what we have explained, we can conclude as follows: Both names, Yaacov and Yisrael, indicate a specific and defined life role. While known as Yaacov, he had a certain mission and destiny. When Hashem changed his name to Yisrael, his destiny changed. However, he was not a completely new person. That his old name, Yaacov, was retained indicates that his old mission and destiny were not quite abandoned. True, he was now Yisrael and his life reflected that change, but he was still Yaacov, preserving all that that name signified.

Having clarified that point, we are now ready to examine the names Yaacov and Yisrael and uncover the secrets of these two names. Yaacov - what does this name represent? In the Torah portion of Toldot, we were told that when Jacob emerged from the womb, he grabbed hold of Esau's heel. As a result of this episode the name Yaacov, derived from the Hebrew word heel, was selected. Keeping in mind that the name reflects the essence of the person, we are forced to conclude that the name represents more than a commemoration of a curious event that occurred at birth. Rather, this event was a defining moment in Jacob's life, providing an insight into his destiny. Yaacov continually found himself grabbing someone's heel. Always treated in a second class manner, Yaacov became accustomed to a life of subservience. Esau was in the driver's seat with Yaacov hanging on for dear life.

Indeed, Yaacov lived up to this name. Even early in his life he found himself tormented by his brother's evil behavior. Eventually, in order to escape Esau's anger, Yaacov fled through the back door. Life did not get any better. Next, Yaacov dealt with the con-artist Laban who cheated and defrauded him time after time. Yaacov was forced to work 14 years for his two wives. The Midrashim provide even more episodes of grief and sorrow in Yaacov's life. Throughout this entire time, Yaacov appeared as the abused underdog; a downtrodden figure. At this point we arrive at the scene where Yaacov fought with the angel.

Yaacov bravely defended himself until dawn, at which point the angel awarded him a new name - Yisrael. Yaacov was now redefined. His essence had been transformed. He was now known as Yisrael - a name derived from the Hebrew word sar, meaning noble and eminent. He was now a dominant figure, with a king-like stature; a distinguished and dignified figure. He was now the father and leader of the holy 12 tribes from which the Jewish people sprouted forth.

At the same time, he was still Yaacov. Misfortunes and tragedies continued to plague him. His daughter Dinah assaulted by Shechem, his precious son Joseph sold into slavery - Yaacov never knew a tranquil moment. However, we notice a marked difference in the way in which Yaacov handled these tragedies. Before he was known as Yisrael, we see only a forlorn downtrodden man. Now, even in the face of calamity, Yaacov remained strong, for he was now Yisrael. His daughter's abduction and rape could have crushed him, but we are told that immediately following the incident, the surrounding people held Yaacov in awe. He maintained his exalted status. This was Yisrael - the grand and imposing character. This contradictory pattern reappeared throughout Jacob's life - unbridled tragedy which attempts to rob him of his status, to reduce him to the level of the "grabbing the heel." Yet somehow Yisrael remained the epitome of strength and majesty, his grand spirit shining through. He experienced both destinies - the adversities of Yaacov, and the esteem of Yisrael.

Yaacov/Yisrael's dual nature perpetuated through his progeny, the Jewish people. Throughout the ages, the Jewish people have been the target of scorn and contempt. Empire after empire have attempted to subjugate the Jewish people and overwhelm them. The Jewish people have been made to feel like the heel; suppressed and subdued. They have felt the Yaacov. However, while those nations seeking to crush the Jewish people have come and gone, we have survived. Even amidst the greatest tragedies, the Jewish spark of greatness refuses to be extinguished. The Jewish people hold their heads high, resisting all attempts to defeat them. Countless stories are told of the unconquerable Jewish spirit, even in the face of the heinous Nazis and their vicious death machine. Going to unimaginable lengths to perform any mitzvah, the Jews displayed a tenacity that defies human logic. While most people would be totally overwhelmed and defeated by such a calamity as the Holocaust, the Jewish people somehow managed to uncover their inner strength and hold their heads high. Our sages (Talmud Tractate Berachot 13a) tell us that although the name Yaacov was indeed retained, the name Yisrael became his primary and dominant name. Yes, the Yaacov still lives on, but the Yisrael within us always comes out on top.


Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is a member of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College Kollel in Baltimore.

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