Parshat Vayishlach -
Yaakov's Name Change to Yisrael

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

Even though Yaakov's name change to Yisrael appears to be quite similar to Avram's name change to Avraham (compare 17:5 with 35:10), in essence, they are very different. In contrast with Avraham, where a single letter ["heh"] is added to the existing name, Yisrael constitutes an entirely new name. Furthermore, 'Yisrael' serves as an alternative name for Yaakov, in contrast with Avraham which became a replacement!

In this week's shiur, we explain how the nature of this name change may reflect a very critical stage in the development of the "bechira" process in Sefer Breishit.

In its detail of Yaakov's return to Eretz Canaan, Parshat Va'yishlach describes two instances when he receives his new name, Yisrael:

Therefore, to fully appreciate the significance of Yaakov's name change, we must consider both of these events and their thematic connection.

We begin our shiur with the second event, as it establishes the connection between the name Yisrael and the "bechira" process - the primary theme of Sefer Breishit.

The Return to Bet-El
Yaakov's return to Bet-El - the site where he received his very first "hitgalut" some twenty years earlier - marks the prophetic 'highlight' of his return to Eretz Canaan. It was at Bet-El where God first informed Yaakov that he is indeed the 'chosen' son (see 28:12-14), and it was at Bet-El where God had promised to look after his needs during his journey to Lavan.

[Recall from our shiur on Parshat Lech L'cha that Bet-El was also the focal point of Avraham's "aliyah," where he built a mizbayach and 'called out in God's Name.']

Now, upon his return, God appears unto Yaakov once again. Let's take a look at these psukim, noting how God not only confirms his "bechira" but also changes his name to Yisrael:

"And God appeared again to Yaakov on his arrival from Padan Aram, and blessed him: You, whose name is Yaakov, shall be called Yaakov no more, but Yisrael shall be your name. Thus He named him Yisrael and God said to him: I am Kel Shaddai, be fertile and increase ... The land that I have given to Avraham and Yitzchak I give to you and to your offspring to come..." (35:9-16)
Considering that this is the last time in Sefer Breishit where God confirms the "bechira" [i.e. the blessing of "zera and aretz" - see 12:1-7, 13:14-16, 15:18, 17:7-8, 26:1-5, 28:13], we can conclude that there must be a thematic connection between this name change to Yisrael and the conclusion of the "bechira" process! (See Board #1.)

To understand why specifically this name - Yisrael - was chosen, we must return to the first event when Yaakov received this name, i.e. after emerging victorious from his struggle with the "mal'ach."

What's in a Name?
Let's take a look at the events that lead up to this struggle, noting the progression of the events that take place and the overall nature of Yaakov's behavior:

Up until this point, Yaakov's life was characterized by his need to employ trickery to acquire what was rightly his. During his life, Yaakov has become the expert at survival, but he lacked experience in 'frontal combat,' the trait that Eisav was best at.

It was for this very reason that Yitzchak had originally intended to bless Eisav, for he understood that in order to establish a nation, the traits of an "ish sadeh" are essential, i.e. the qualities necessary to provide leadership in worldly matters (see shiur on Parshat Toldot). During his youth, Yaakov, the "ish tam," lacked this character. Once it had been determined that Yaakov was to be the only chosen son, it became necessary that he himself develop those traits as well.

Now, as Yaakov finally returns to Eretz Canaan, he must confront Eisav. However, from Yaakov's strategy (see 32:13-21), it becomes quite clear that he is still not ready to confront Eisav as an "ish sadeh."

[One could even suggest that his plan attempts to show Eisav that in reality, he never received the blessing of prosperity and power which he had tried to steal. By bowing down to Eisav, Yaakov wishes to show his brother that the 'stolen blessing' of power and dominion over his brother ("hevei gvir l'achecha, yishtachavu l'cha bnei iy'mecha..." 27:29) was indeed awarded to Eisav. Ironically, Yaakov is using trickery once again, this time to show his brother that his original trickery used to 'steal' the brachot was meaningless.]

Realism or Laziness
It is precisely at this point that Yaakov's struggle with the mal'ach takes place: after his preparation to bow down to Eisav, but before the actual confrontation. This order of events suggests a thematic relationship between this struggle and that confrontation.

A major controversy exists among the commentators as to whether Yaakov was correct in this total subjugation to his brother. Some hold that Yaakov should have openly confronted his brother while putting his total faith in God, while others maintain that due to the circumstances, his timid strategy was appropriate. [This 'hashkafic' controversy continues until this very day].

Regardless of the 'political correctness' of his actions, the situation remains that Yaakov is unable to openly confront Eisav. Nevertheless, God finds it necessary that Yaakov prove himself capable of fighting should such a situation arise in the future. Yaakov must now demonstrate that his subjugation to Eisav stems from political realism rather than spiritual laziness. He must prove that, when necessary, he will be capable of fighting. [Sooner or later, confrontations with the likes of Eisav will be encountered when establishing a nation.]

Possibly for this reason, God must test Yaakov's potential to engage in battle with his enemy before he meets Eisav. Yaakov finds this struggle with the "mal'ach" difficult, for he is untrained; the contest continues all night until the 'break of dawn.' [Possibly, 'night' represents galut, and 'dawn,' redemption. See Ramban, al atar.] Although wounded and limping, Yaakov emerges victorious from this confrontation, thus earning his new name:

"Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have fought with beings divine ('elokim') and human ('anashim') and triumphed." (32:29)
Thus, the name 'Yisrael' reflects the character of one triumphant in battle. Yaakov's new name is significant for it reflects his capability to engage head on in battle. In order to become a nation, this trait - represented by the name 'Yisrael' - is crucial.

Why Twice?
Yaakov's earning this name from the "mal'ach" is not in itself sufficient. It must later be confirmed by God, together with his "bechira," at Bet-El (the very site where he was first promised the "bechira"). Thus, it appears as though the blessings which Yaakov received throughout all the episodes of his trickery must now be bestowed upon him properly. First, God names Yaakov - 'Yisrael,' symbolizing the traits of worldly leadership (35:9-10).

Afterward God confirms the blessing which Yitzchak had given him (28:1-4). See Board #2 and note the obvious parallels between these two blessings. This comparison clearly shows that God's blessing to Yaakov at Bet-El is a precise confirmation of Yitzchak's blessing to him after the incident of the stolen brachot. Hence, we may conclude that the name of Yisrael marks the conclusion of the "bechira" process, as well as a necessary character trait to later become God's special nation.

The Future
Although Yaakov's worldly traits may lie dormant for several generations, it must be inherent to his character before his "bechira" receives final divine confirmation. [Later, Yaakov will bless his two most able sons, Yehudah and Yosef, with the leadership in this realm (49:8-26).]

Throughout the rest of Chumash, the name Yaakov interchanges with Yisrael. This suggests that each name reflects a different aspect of his character. The are times when 'Am Yisrael' must act as Yaakov, the "ish tam," and there are times when the more active and nationalistic characteristics of Yisrael must be employed. Ultimately, as the prophet Ovadyah proclaims, the day will come when:

"Liberators shall march up on Har Zion to wreak judgement on Har Eisav; and the kingdom shall be that of God." (1:21)
Based on this understanding of the significance of the special name of Yisrael, one could suggest a reason for the necessity of the "bechira" process to continue one generation past Yitzchak. (See Board #1.) [Or re-phrased, why was it necessary for Eisav to be rejected, given the importance of his worldly traits?]

Our original assumption, that the traits of both an "ish sadeh" and an "ish tam" are necessary in order to establish a nation, remains correct. Nevertheless, it is important that they are not perceived as equally important. The fundamental character of Am Yisrael must be that of an "ish tam" (Yaakov). Only once that characteristic becomes rooted can the traits of an "ish sadeh" be added. Had Eisav been included in 'Am Yisrael,' our perception of the relative importance of an "ish sadeh" may have become distorted. A disproportionate emphasis on 'nationalism' and strength - despite their importance - would have tainted mankind's perception of God's special nation.

In the formative stage of our national development, our outward appearance as 'Yisrael' must stem from our inner character as 'Yaakov.' We must first speak with the 'voice of Yaakov' (see Rashi 27:22); only then may we don the 'hands of Eisav.'

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

For Further Iyun
A. Chazal tell us that the "mal'ach" was the "sar shel Eisav" - Eisav's guardian angel.

B. There is a Midrash that tells us 'Yaakov avinu lo meyt' - Yaakov never died. C. Although Rachel dies prematurely, and Reuven behaves in a unfitting manner, the unit which began with "toldot Yitzchak" (25:19) now concludes with:
"And the sons of Yaakov remained twelve in number..." (35:22-29)
Explain the structure of the finale of this unit based on the above shiur.

D. Toldot Eisav
"Yitzchak was chosen. Therefore, we need to follow the toldot of Eisav, just as we needed to follow the toldot of Yishmael and Lot."

E. Brit Milah and God's Blessing to Yaakov
A quick analysis of God's final blessing to Yaakov at Bet El (35:9-15) immediately shows that it is reflective of Brit Milah (Breishit perek 17). The name of Kel Shaddai; pru u'rvu; khal goyim and mlachim..; shem Elokim; and the concept of l'hiyot lcha l'Elokim can all be found at Brit Milah.

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