Vayishlach: Israel – the name we call our own

Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed. (Bereishit 32:28)

He tricks his father,
cheats his brother
and flees from home, afraid.
He deals unkindly with his wives
and flaunts his favorite child.
He sows fraternal hatred and
his sons devise their crime.

Meet our father Jacob
with his less-than-perfect life,
who unawares, encounters the Divine.
He battles with himself
and wrestles with the Other
and finally he earns a fitter name.

And we, his children, struggle likewise
seeking grace in messy lives
and as we strive for wholeness,
we call our name by his.


We have been following Jacob’s troubled life since Parashat Toledot, when he deceives his father Isaac and expropriates Esau’s blessing, and has to flee his brother’s wrath. In Parashat Vayetsei we are witness to his unkindness to his wives. The Torah actually describes Leah as “hated”! Jacob’s greater love for Rachel is understandable, but nonetheless, Leah is considered an innocent victim of Laban’s treachery. Rabbi Bunem of Peshischa suggests that the text does not mean that Jacob hated her, rather that she hated herself, as a righteous person who saw her own faults. However, the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS says, “Knowing what we know of human psychology, we can also suspect that Jacob did indeed hate Leah because, by reminding him of the fraudulent circumstances of their wedding, she reminded him of his most shameful memory, the time he deceived his father. We often hate people for confronting us with what we least like about ourselves.”
Then, when Rachel cries out to him of her pain at being barren, he is incensed rather than sympathetic and answers her unfeelingly. (The Midrash depicts Rachel reminding Jacob that he was born only after Isaac prayed on Rebekah’s behalf.) The Sages criticize Jacob for his insensitivity.
But finally in this week’s Parasha, Vayishlach, we see that Jacob has changed in many ways. Years before, when he left his home, after the dream of the ladder, he prayed to God in what seemed like a bargaining manner: he said that if God would protect him, supply his needs and return him safely home, then he would acknowledge God as God and set aside a tithe for Him! Now he prays a more mature prayer – he knows he has nothing to offer God, and that he has already been granted a plethora of blessings: love, family and wealth. So now he asks only for God’s protection so that he can be an instrument in fulfilling God’s plan. We see, too, how his previous response to precarious situations was by lying and flight (he also leaves Laban’s house by stealth in this parasha). The Etz Hayim says, “He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding and manipulating them.” Even though at the end of the struggle, Jacob is wounded, he is described as shalem or whole (Bereishit 33:18). The word shalem is etymologically connected with shalom – peace. He is envisioned as being at peace with himself, and the Sefat Emet intimates that he now has an integrity that he didn’t have before.

In a commentary on Vayetsei, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/va-yetzei/5768/why-are-we-called-people-israel, Rabbi Ed Feld notes that we are called not after Abraham, nor Isaac, but Jacob. He wonders why that might be. He says, “Abraham is a mythic figure — we have almost no clue to his inner life. Both at the beginning of his story and at the end, we see him following God’s command with absolute faith…his life appears charmed and God protects him.
“While we have mythic tales of this father, there is a paucity of information regarding Isaac, his son, the second of the patriarchs. Essentially we see him in two scenes, in both of which he is a passive player…
“The Jacob narrative is different than both of these…Jacob’s emotional life is apparent. We are told when he is fearful; we are told when he is in love. His domestic life is carefully examined and his troubles and feelings are in full view…the trajectory of his life is not simply uphill. His relationship with his family is constantly troubled. We suspect that the love relationship with Rachel has gone aground; their dialogue certainly seems less than loving. His eldest, Reuben, disrespects him. His disagreements with Laban almost put his life in danger. Fear and disappointment never leave him. In old age, reflecting on it all, he will complain to Pharoah, “Few and hard have been the years of my life,” (Bereishit 47:9).
“Of all the patriarchs, then, Jacob is the most human, suffering ups and downs, living through successful accomplishment and suffering tragedy. He is the most human, the most like us. And we are called the People Israel because his are precisely the most human of tasks with which we are to engage: How to live with one another, how to love, how to raise families, how to create community. That is the stuff of Jewish law, the halakha, the path which we are to create in order to build a life that aims toward God.”
Rabbi Feld brings the teaching with which Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, begins his classic work, the Tanya. Rabbi Schneur Zalman discusses the beinoni, the one who is neither fully righteous nor evil. Rabbi Feld notes that although many Hasidic masters concentrated on the development of the tsaddik, the saintly person, the Ba’al HaTanya seems to be suggesting that in the end, “even those who seek a life of extreme piety are simply middling people, made up of flesh and blood, tossed about by circumstance, subject to mixed motives, trying to work through relationships and be decent husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers. We have to come to grips with our own fears, our loves, our self-concern, our wish to make a difference. And always we meet the Other who is not what we expect, who is filled with his or her own ambitions, fears, inclinations, desires, a succession of Others with whom we wrestle.”
So Rabbi Feld perceives Jacob as showing us the way: “He goes to sleep in a field, dreams, and awakes only to discover what he didn’t comprehend or imagine, “Truly there is a God in this place, and I didn’t know it.” We, too, can enter into our world, the world of everyday busyness, the place of ambition and concern, of love that strives to be realized and of motive that is misunderstood, but as we struggle through to create a measure of holiness out of the ordinary, out of the everyday, we truly become living participants in the story of the People Israel. We, too, might be able to echo our eponymous ancestor and amid the striving, the wrestling, discover that that is where we find God: in the revelation that the everyday may contain holiness.”

In a commentary on Vayetsei, http://ziegler.aju.edu/contentblocklist.aspx?fid=680, Janet Sternfield Davis also surveys Jacob’s life. She says, “Many of us have had Jacob moments, but luckily not a Jacob life. We’ve had to leave home in order to get on track. Sometimes home is not safe, or it’s too safe to do the hard work of creating a life worth living. What is a life worth living? What is the hard work required to become who we were meant to or could be?”
Jacob’s life, we read in this and the following parashot, is difficult and painful. He has been both manipulator and manipulated, deceiver and deceived. Sternfeld-Davis also addresses the bargain Jacob seems to make with God after the dream of the ladder. But she cites a commentary by the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) who examines this conditional vow and suggests that Jacob does not doubt God’s promise, but rather worries lest his own behavior might impede the fulfillment of God’s promise. She says, “Jacob can’t depend on God’s promises without his doing his part to bring the promise to fruition. During most of Jacob’s twenty years in Paddan Aran he seems to be working out his atonement for his earlier actions in Canaan. He matures by acting with a quiet integrity and industry. He is doing his part to protect the validity of the vow…” By the time Jacob finally leaves Laban’s household, we see that he now knows that God has been with him. He also makes a pact with Laban – he has become someone who acts openly and with integrity. Sternfield-Davis says, “Our lives may or may not be as dramatic as Jacob’s life. The question is do we have the courage to leave, even psychically, at a low point in our lives to commit ourselves to live with integrity? What do we make of our lives if we don’t fulfill our own personal pledge to act responsibly?  And… can we return “home” as the different people we became due to our “getting out of town”? This can be as daunting as the original leave-taking because we fear we will regress to the old us, and lose all the hard fought changes we have made. The stories of our ancestors are full of promises made to and by very human and recognizable people. They are flawed individuals who accomplished great things. Our responsibility is to fulfill our promise to live a life worth living, and make our contribution to the legacy of our people.”

In another commentary on Vayishlach, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5266, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz also addresses Jacob’s transformation. She says that there have been many suggestions as to the identity of the mysterious being with whom Jacob struggled all night.  Rabbi Peretz says, “Jacob, however, had no doubt of his partner in struggle; in his mind, it was God with whom he struggled. He called the place of the encounter Peniel, “because I saw God face to face and my soul was saved.” Even his adversary implies as much when he gives Jacob the name Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with man and you have been victorious.”
She asks, “Did Jacob know who he was? After all, he had lied to his father, stealing both Esau’s birthright and blessing. To have any chance of reconciliation with his brother, Jacob had to acknowledge that he had, in fact, done wrong; he had to wrestle with the guilt and disappointment in his own actions. He had to take an honest look in the mirror.”
Rabbi Peretz perceives Jacob’s night of wrestling as “a moment of reckoning”. His struggle, she says, transformed him. “So, his name was changed to Israel and through him we became known as B’nei Israel – the Children of Israel, a people who must wrestle with God and ourselves to determine our blessing, to experience the essence of our covenant, to accept our collective mission as a people.”
She continues, “Like Jacob, we too face moments in life that command our self-reflection and willingness to struggle. We too have to confront our inner selves – the good and the bad. We confront our own angel; we confront God; we confront ourselves. And, we wrestle with questions: Who are we? What have we done? How can we change and grow from within the depths of accepting our frailties. What does God really want from us?”
Rabbi Peretz concludes, “As we create for ourselves new names and identities, we know that only through honest self-evaluation will we ultimately walk away renewed and transformed.”

In his book, A Partner in Holiness, Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites the commentary by Rabbi Levi Yitschak of Berditchev who addresses the change of Jacob’s name to Israel and what it might mean. He offers it as an aspiration for connecting with God. R’ Levi Yitschak rearranges the letters of each name in his teaching. Jacob/Ya’AKoV, becomes Yod AKeV. The word EKeV denotes “heel”; the yod signifies the final letter of the divine name Adonai; this symbolizes an entanglement in the lowest dimension of divinity in this world. R’Levi Yitschak takes the letters of Israel YiSRaeL and rearranges them as YaShaR EL which both suggests “straight to God” and also seeing God directly (the verb sh-u-r means “to behold” or “regard”. Rabbi Slater says, “These surely are apt for the person who is able to maintain unbroken attachment to the Divine, mental attachment to God. Thus, the title given to those spiritual “knights” who never flag in their devotion to God is Israel.”

In a commentary on Vayishlach, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5265, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson addresses the puzzle of the continued use of Jacob’s former name even after he has been given the new name of Israel.
He says that Jacob transforms from the youth who tries to wrest his destiny from his older brother and force fate by wily strategies, to the man who wrestles with the angel without manipulation.  “At the end of that transforming moment,” says Rabbi Shavit Artson, “the angel acknowledges Jacob’s new, more mature nature, by bestowing the new name Israel.” But then the Torah continues to revert periodically to the old name. Why has Israel not replaced Jacob permanently? Rabbi Shavit Artson cites the Talmud (BT Berachot 13a) “Jacob is not to be entirely eliminated, but ‘Israel’ is to be primary and ‘Jacob’ secondary.” So he asks, “Why does the third patriarch retain his earlier, somewhat embarrassing name?” and he answers, “The reality of human life is that we never eradicate our earlier identities… With each new phase of existence, we grow and add new aspects of an emerging self. But we are never simple, never single layered. Instead, just as a thriving tree adds new rings, but always around the earliest core, so too we humans add new modifications and identities to an increasingly complex and layered history of who we are. No matter how much our surface radiates the placid wisdom, profundity, and tranquility of an Israel, the chaos, passion, and turbulence of our earlier identities as a Jacob never lurks very far beneath the surface.
“Who we were, we are. But the glory of human growth is that we too, like our ancient ancestor, need not accept our shortcomings as defining. Instead, we can struggle with our own angels and wrestle with the demons that we retain from our youth.
“While we will never obliterate the Jacob within, it is within our power to transcend him.
“We, too, can grow to become Israel.”

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