The Renaming of Yaakov
Parshat Vayishlach tells the story of Yaakov’s reunification with his brother Esav and his subsequent journey throughout the land of C’naan. One particularly momentous and fascinating event in this parsha is when Hashem changes Yaakov’s name to Yisroel: “וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב לֹא יִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל” (35:10). Why does God do this? What is the difference between the two names? And does Yaakov merit the privilege of having his name changed as well as having an entire nation named after him?
Rashi suggests that when Hashem changed Yaakov’s name to Yisroel, He also changed Yaakov’s status. The name Yaakov is derived from the root akav, meaning roundabout or hidden. The name Yisroel comes from the root sar, meaning officer or leader. This change in Yaakov’s name is a declaration that he is no longer an “indirect, roundabout person,” as the name Yaakov connotes. Rather, Yaakov will become the leader of a whole nation.
The Gemara disagrees with Rashi and states that the name Yaakov was not replaced; it simply became a secondary name to Yisroel. We can see this from the fact that Yaakov isn’t referred to as Yisroel throughout the rest of Tanach, and only at certain times. When he is referred to as Yisroel, his role as national leader is highlighted. In contrast, when he is referred to as Yaakov, he is taking the role of an individual.
Rav Zevin’s opinion focuses on the name Yaakov and its root akav. Rather than interpret this root as hidden, Rav Zevin interprets it as sneaky and deceitful. Yaakov acted with deceit when he stole the birthright from Eisav. Rav Zevin’s opinion focuses on the name Yaakov and its Shoresh Akav, which means sneaky and deceitful.” The prime example of Yaakov acting in such a manner is when he stole the birthright from Eisav. Yet Yaakov’s actions were not entirely selfish. Obtaining his father’s bracha was necessary to attain the status of bechor and ensure that the future of Bnei Yisroel included the service in the Beis Hamikdash. He needed to utilize his trickiness as Yaakov in order to ultimately set the right path, and act as Yisroel.
We all face this dichotomy. Ideally our lives would be pure righteousness without any disturbance or deviation. In reality, that is not always possible. We learn from Yaakov that, only with the proper intentions, we must sometimes use crooked ways to set a straight path.
In my opinion, the reason we have adopted the name Yisroel, and not Yaakov, as a nation is because we want to strive for the ideal way of life. Despite Yaakov’s status as one of the Avot and an incredible individual, his original name connotes an indirect and hidden connection with righteousness, instead of a direct and open one. By renaming him Yisroel, Hashem communicated the importance of having that direct connection.
The character of Yisroel is upright, strong and authoritative; these are the traits we should remember Yaakov Avinu for, and the traits we should try to emulate as Am Yisroel.
Student studying in Harova