Vayishlach: Two Names

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

“Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:29)

“God said to him,’You whose name is Yaakov, You shall be called Yaakov no more,but Yisrael shall be your name.’ “

Good afternoon!

This week our ancestor Yaakov goes back home with many wives, children, servants and animals- a whole camp, which is divided in two before they meet up with Yaakov’s brother Esav, whom they fear has aggressive intent. Yaakov himself spends the night alone before this fateful meeting, and wrestles with the angel who changes his name from Yaakov– the deceiver- to Yisrael, the God-wrestler. (As Arthur Waskow puts it.) This name change is then confirmed in a theophany (revelation of the Presence) a few chapters later, as above.

The symbolism is clear: Yaakov, who deceived his brother and ran away, is finally mature enough to humble himself and confront the legacy of his actions; this inner change is marked by the outer change of his name. Yet the Torah continues to use both names – in fact, just a few verses later (35:14) the text says that it was “Yaakov” who set up the pillar to mark the spot where God changed his name!

So what’s the deal here? Is he Yaakov, or Yisrael? From a historical perspective, we might hypothesize that texts which use the different names reflect older traditions woven together- that’s called source criticism, related to the documentary hypothesis. On other hand, some traditional commentaries saw no contradiction, merely noting that “Yisrael” would be considered the primary name and “Yaakov” the secondary name from now on. (Cf. Torah Temimah on 35:10)

If the change of names is indeed symbolic of his growth and spiritual evolution, then we might even posit that it makes sense to carry both names as Yisrael/ Yaakov goes forward on his journey- because spiritual growth is not a linear process of sudden and permanent change. It’s two steps forward, one step back, and a life-long commitment to taking one’s personal inventory of strengths and weaknesses, passions and values, shortcomings and inner challenges. Yaakov can indeed become Yisrael- the God-wrestler- but he carries that part of him which is Yaakov, just as we all grow but carry our earlier selves along the way.

Perhaps the text is even hinting that Yisrael knows that part of himself is still Yaakov- and that this self-awareness is an outcome of his wrestling with conscience and memory. To me, this is a tremendously realistic and yet hopeful view of human nature: spiritual growth consists of knowing and accepting one’s flaws and yet refusing to be bound by them. Yaakov becomes Yisrael and is still Yaakov- not a paradox, but a reflection of the upward spiral of the journeying heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


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