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Vayishlach(Genesis 32:4-36:43)

Yaakov / Yisrael

YISRAEL1

And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Bereishit 32:25)

Late one night a nameless, enigmatic adversary meets a man named Yaakov; at least, Yaakov thought that was his name.

And he said to him, what is your name? And he said, Yaakov. And he said, No longer will you be called Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with God2 and with men, and have prevailed. Bereishit (32:28-29)

While the identity of this individual is withheld, apparently his statement is accurate, for later God reaffirms the message:

And God appeared to Yaakov again, when he came from Padan-Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, your name is Yaakov; no longer shall you be called Yaakov, but Yisrael shall be your name; and he called his name Yisrael. (Bereishit 35:9-10)

While these pronouncements seem straightforward, things may not be as simple as they appear. Although other biblical figures also had name changes, after their new name was bestowed, the old name was never used again. But in the case of Yaakov/Yisrael, the name change doesn't seem to stick: Avraham was born Avram, but after God changed his name, he never again reverted to the previous form of Avram. One would assume that in similar fashion, from this point onward Yaakov should never again be called Yaakov, but that simply is not the case. God Himself, in subsequent dialogue, addresses him as Yaakov rather than as Yisrael. Perhaps, then, we have not properly understood the "name change".3

When Avraham's name is changed it is permanent, to the extent that using the old name is halachically proscribed.4 The Baaley Hatosfot explain that Avraham's name changed as he underwent a metamorphosis. The new name was given at the juncture at which most Jewish males are given their name - when they are circumcised. Precisely because the new name was part of Avraham's conversion, the old identity was forfeited. Yaakov, unlike Avraham, was born "Jewish", was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth and given his name concurrently. His new name must have a different purpose.5

We must conclude that Yaakov's name was not changed; rather, he received an additional name.6 The implications of this approach must be explored. Suggestions abound, but an overarching explanation into which all the instances fit perfectly and every occurrence is explained still seems lacking. The various approaches are not mutually exclusive, and may complement one another, together giving us a whole picture greater than the sum of its parts:

Rashi7 suggests that the name Yaakov indicates subservience, while the name Yisrael indicates strength and victory. Varying uses reflect different aspects of Yaakov's personality that come to light in varying situations. Another view is offered by Meshech Chochma, who sees the different names as expressing the distinction between Yaakov as an individual versus Yisrael as a national identity. Thus, according to Meshech Chochma, God addresses "Yisrael" exclusively when, and only when, there are national issues at hand.8

The Netziv9 proposes that the distinction is between a supernatural aspect (Yisrael), versus a more mundane name (Yaakov) used when natural events or actions are described. Because humans cannot function purely on the spiritual plane, both names are needed.

Each of these suggestions seems to point to an unresolved tension in Yaakov's life which results in a dual identity.

 

* * *

 

UNRESOLVED CONFLICTS

While other Patriarchs also experienced tension and conflict, to a great extent their issues were eventually resolved. For example, there is a certain amount of tension in Avraham's life stemming from the battle for status as his "real" wife between Hagar and Sarah. This conflict is so quickly resolved with the exile of Hagar, that it is hard for us to even admit that this was a serious question. Who is Avraham's "real" son, Yishmael or Yitzchak? Again, this question is immediately resolved. The conflicts in Avraham's life are resolved so quickly and efficiently that we are lulled into thinking that they never existed. So, too, with Yitzchak: Who is Yitzchak's "real" son, the one who would continue the line and the Covenant - Yaakov or Esav? The tension lasts for approximately one chapter and is resolved.

However, when we look at Yaakov, resolutions are scarce. Who is his "real" wife, Rachel or Leah? This is a haunting question; a fair argument could be made for each. Shall we say that the real wife is the woman he first loved? Is it the woman who brought most of Yaakov's children into the world? Or is it perhaps the woman buried beside him in the ancestral burial ground? And who is Yaakov's "primary" son, Yosef or Yehuda? The questions seem more intriguing than the answer could possibly be. And now, what, indeed, is his real name - Yaakov or Yisrael? Yaakov's life is full of unresolved conflicts and tension. It is within these unresolved conflicts that the depth of Yaakov's identity emerges and his essence is revealed.

 

* * *

 

THE MIDDLE WAY

Each of the Patriarchs has a unique spiritual identity: Avraham is associated with Chesed (kindness), Yitzchak is identified with Din (judgment). Yaakov is known as Tiferet (beauty) or Rachamin (compassion). Our first question should be, why? Why is Yaakov associated with Rachamim?10 Is this identification arbitrary, or is there an intrinsic relationship?

 

* * *

 

RACHAMIM

Yaakov represents Rachamim which is the merger of the Chesed of Avraham and the Din of Yitzchak.11 The Vilna Gaon explains that when Yaakov is called Ish Tam - a simple or perhaps "perfect man" - this combination of the Chesed of Avraham and the Din of Yitzchak is the nature of his perfection. He is perfect because he is the center, the wonderful balance.12 But what is Rachamim? How is it distinguished from Chesed? The word Rachamim is etymologically related to rechem, womb. Thus, one might render Rachamim as all-embracing, unconditional love13 like that of a mother for her child. Just as a mother has this sort of love for her child despite the inevitable physical pain of childbirth and the unavoidable emotional pain of raising the child, so Rachamim is the combination of Din and Chesed. Few people experienced the pain of raising children as acutely as Yaakov. Reuven's indiscretion and insubordination, Shimon and Levy's violent adventures, the abuse suffered by Dinah, Yosef's disappearance and apparent death, the potential loss of Binyamin: the story of Yaakov's life was one of parental pain.14

According to some commentaries,15 Rachamim is the synthesis16 of Chesed and Din,17 the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. This is the means Yaakov used to cope with the unresolved conflicts in his life.

Another possibility is that instead of synthesis, the relationship may be more accurately described as symbiosis: the new entity (Rachamim) combines Din and Chesed, but each of the pre-existing elements retains its identity as a distinct attribute.18 This approach is akin to another description of Yaakov: According to the Midrash, Yaakov is associated with the main beam which goes through width of the Mishkan - the "bariach hatichon".19 It was Yaakov who brought this beam to Egypt when he went to see Yosef, effectively beginning the Exile.20 This is the middle beam which holds the edifice together. This is Yaakov, who has the ability to bring together the attributes he has inherited from Avraham and Yitzchak, and hold these two divergent strands together to create the unshakable "middle way," the supporting beam of what will later become our main conduit to spirituality. This is what it means to be the "middle," to support the structure, to provide tools for Redemption at the very start of the inevitable Exile.

In fact, Yaakov is the first individual in the Torah to use the word rachamim:

And may God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may free your other brother, and Binyamin. And if I am to be bereaved of my children, then I am bereaved. (Bereishit 43:14)

 

* * *

 

EXILE

Binyamin is brought down to Egypt, ostensibly to satisfy the whimsical request of an Egyptian despot. "May God give you rachamim!" is Yaakov's prayer for his sons. Only when Binyamin is brought to Egypt does the Exile officially begin, for only then will all twelve sons of Yaakov be in Egypt. While the brothers believed that they had sold their brother Yosef into slavery, little did they realize that they were soon to share his plight. When they flagged down the band of passing Yishmaelites, it never dawned on them that they were all part of a larger plan that would bring all of the children of Yaakov to Egypt.

When Yaakov himself finally goes to Egypt, he has a revelation:

And Yisrael traveled with all that he had, and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzchak. And God spoke to Yisrael in the visions of the night, and said, Yaakov, Yaakov. And he said, Here am I. And he said, I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation;I will go down with you to Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Yosef shall put his hand upon your eyes. And Yaakov rose up from Beersheba; and the sons of Yisrael carried Yaakov their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. (Bereishit 46:1-5)

The entire section is confusing, as the text seesaws between Yisrael and Yaakov. "Yisrael" travels, but "Yaakov" is addressed. Then Yaakov travels, and the children of "Yisrael" carry him. Deciphering the names seems a hopeless task.

 

* * *

 

LIMITING THE EXILE

The Megaleh Amukot says that when Yaakov prayed for rachamim, it was from God, and not from the Egyptian ruler: He prayed that God's Attribute of Rachamim should temper the Din of the Exile. This prayer is the reason that the actual period of slavery lasted only 86 years, which is the numerical value of El-ohim.21 This would be a classic example of Rachamim which fuses Chesed and Din: The children of Avraham are destined to be slaves, apparently for a period of 400 years. But tradition tells us that the 400 years are counted from the birth of Yitzchak and not from the moment the Children of Yaakov begin their sojourn in Egypt.

FOR LO, THE WINTER IS PAST. This refers to the four hundred years which our ancestors were condemned to be in Egypt. THE RAIN IS OVER AND GONE: this refers to the two hundred and ten years [that they were actually there]. Are not 'rain' and 'winter' the same thing? R. Tanhuma said: The real hardship [of winter] is its rain. So the real bondage of Israel in Egypt was eighty-six years, from the birth of Miriam. ("Miriam", means bitterness.) (Midrash Rabbah Shir Hashirim 2:28)

The duration of the Exile was 210 years, but actual slavery was only for 86 of those years. According to Megaleh Amukot, this is a result of the prayers of Yaakov, and reflects his unique spiritual profile:22 This is a merger of Chesed and Din. The Exile and enslavement are inevitable, unavoidable. Yaakov prayed, not to cancel these harsh decrees, not to alter the judgment of Gods attribute of Din, but to merge it with God's attribute of Chesed - 86 years of slavery in place of 400. Indeed, the Talmud teaches that the enslavement was tempered in another way: Yaakov himself was spared slavery:

R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Yohanan's name: it was fitting for our father Yaakov to go down into Egypt in iron chains, but his merit saved him, for it is written, I drew them with the cords of a man, with bands of love; and I was to them as they that take off the yoke on their jaws, and I laid meat before them.

Slavery should have begun with Yaakov taken down to Egypt in chains, but he was spared the disgrace. Yaakov arrived in Egypt with a royal escort, and was received by Pharaoh himself with full honours. It was the beginning of the slavery, conducted with pomp and circumstance. This combination is Rachamim. The sale of Yosef23 and Yosef's ascension to royalty were all part of the greater plan to temper the unavoidable enslavement.24

 

* * *

 

RACHEL AND LEAH

Let us return to another unresolved conflict in Yaakov's life: Who is his "real" wife? According to the Zohar ,25 the real wife of Yaakov was Rachel, and the real wife of Yisrael was Leah. Therefore, the Megaleh Amukot says, as soon as Yaakov returns to the Land of Israel and receives the name Yisrael, Rachel dies.26 It is as if Yaakov is no more; therefore his soul-mate, is no more. Rachel was the woman Yaakov loved; Leah was the woman who produced the lion's share of Am Yisrael. The Midrash articulates the issue as follows: The word ikar ('principal' wife) is related to akara (childless); when the Torah says Rachel was akara, the message is that she was the principal wife. Nonetheless, Leah is the mother of the nation.27

The complexity of the issue stems from the nature of Rachamim. Avraham was identified with Chesed, and his wife Sarah, who insists that Yishmael must go, is Din. It is she who displays clear judgment, is able to isolate the black and the white from amidst the grey. Yitzchak, her son, is also identified with Din; he hears the pronouncement of God and unflinchingly executes the decree. There is no grey area. His wife Rivkah is identified with Chesed, hence the test employed by Avraham's servant to locate the proper spouse for Yitzchak.

Who is Yaakov? A kindly, sensitive tent - dweller. A spiritual man. A man of loving-kindness whom one needs no other reason to love. Rachel, too, is kind, generous, giving. Her self-sacrifice for her sister is unparalleled in the annals of Chesed. Here, at last, is the perfect couple: Similar in temperament and inclination, without the stark differences that characterized the home life of the previous two generations. But something went wrong. A different couple, also destined to unite, never materialized - Esav and Leah.

Esav and Leah were meant to be together,28 but Esav turns his back on the Divine Plan. He abdicates. A replacement for the powerful Esav in the pantheon of Jewish leaders must be found. Enter Yisrael, the "replacement" spouse for Leah. The merger of Yaakov and Yisrael is paralleled by the merger of Rachel and Leah. In fact, we are told that Rachel and Leah were one soul divided between two bodies.29

The original plan was for Yaakov and Rachel to form a home of complete Chesed and for Esav and Leah to form a home of total Din. With these forces joined and working in harmony, the product would become known as Am Yisrael. This plan is frustrated when Esav backs out. He scorns his birthright, rejects his responsibility. Esav's powers of judgment are not put to use in the service of God, but rather in the service of self, as part of Esav's rebellion. A void results, a vacuum that must be filled. Yaakov steps up. He takes Esav's birthright upon himself, acquires the blessing that was meant for Esav, and sets out to fulfill a dual role: to fulfill the destiny of Yaakov and fulfill God's Covenant with Avraham, while at the same time fulfilling the destiny which Esav has abandoned, which will now be filled by Yisrael.30

Yaakov must now leave the tents. He must reinvent himself. He must live a dual life, and he must marry two women. He must be both Yaakov and Yisrael; he must become Rachamim.

The name Yisrael is given to Yaakov as he is about to enter the Land of Israel, having built his family and his wealth, having brought to fruition the blessings meant for Esav. The name Yisrael is bestowed upon him when he has successfully incorporated into his personality the aspects Esav abandoned. The name Yisrael is bestowed upon him after his confrontation with and victory over Esav. He has taken on Esav's attribute of Din, building Am Yisrael together with Leah, and this is reflected in his new name. But his previous identity, his natural attribute of Chesed, co-exists with Din; he has accepted a dual responsibility, and the duality of his name reflects this. He is married to both Rachel and Leah; he is both Chesed and Din, both Yaakov and Yisrael.

Years later, when Yisrael begins his trip to Egypt, to exile, he is addressed as Yaakov. The other identity, named Yisrael and representing the superior, national, even super-natural identity, is subdued as slavery begins. Subservience, embodied in the name Yaakov (heel) will now be the order of the day. The children of Yisrael cannot but follow: When they sentenced their brother Joseph, son of Yaakov and Rachel, first to death and then to slavery, they turned their backs on the attribute of Chesed shared by Yaakov and Rachel. They did not understand that the sale of their brother would actually result in their own slavery and subservience. They did not see that Din untempered by Chesed would lead to tragedy. This lesson would have to be learned in the long years of exile and enslavement.

It is possible that when the Exile that was curtailed to 86 years, shortened and ameliorated by the merit of Yaakov's prayers, not all things which needed to be accomplished during exile were achieved.31 Not all the lessons of exile and slavery were learned. Not all the impurities of the collective soul of Am Yisrael were cleansed. In God's infinite Mercy and Wisdom, He saw that the Jews needed to leave Egypt sooner than planned. Even one more day of Exile could have had catastrophic consequences.32 Consequently, Redemption came too soon. Another exile would be necessary to insure that the remaining accomplishments could be achieved. Yaakov/Yisrael would have to continue to vacillate between these two identities, between national strength and subservience. But the Sages assure us that the second Redemption will be the ultimate Redemption, making the Redemption from Egypt seem a minor, secondary episode -- like the name Yaakov and the relative powerlessness it connotes as compared to Yisrael, who has struggled with God and men and triumphed:

It has been taught: Ben Zoma said to the Sages: Will the Exodus from Egypt be mentioned in the days of the Messiah? Was it not long ago said: Therefore behold the days come, says the Lord, that they shall no more say: As the Lord lives that brought up the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but, As the Lord lives that brought up and that led the descendents of the house of Israel out of the north country and from all the countries where I had driven them? They replied: This does not mean that the mention of the Exodus from Egypt shall be obliterated, but that the [deliverance from] subjugation to the other kingdoms shall take the first place and the Exodus from Egypt shall become secondary. Similarly you read: Thy name shall not be called any more Yaakov, but Israel shall be thy name. This does not mean that the name Yaakov shall be obliterated, but that Israel shall be the principal name and Yaakov a secondary one. And so it says: Remember not the former things, neither consider the things of old. "Remember not the former things" refers to the subjugation to the other nations; "Neither consider the things of old" refers to the Exodus from Egypt.

When the final Redemption comes, the Exodus from Egypt will be recalled, but, placed in perspective, it will pale in comparison. The Messianic Redemption will be primary. Likewise, in the End of Days, the name Yaakov will be secondary, and the name Yisrael will endure forever. And when the time comes to return from exile, it is the tears of Rachel crying for her children - all of her children, all of Am Yisrael - that are answered: In the Messianic Age, Rachel will be seen as the mother of all of Am Yisrael, finally uniting the divergent attributes and bringing together all of the Tribes of Israel:

Thus says the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. Thus says the Lord; Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come again to their own border. (Yirmiyahu 31:14-16)

Rachel's supreme act of Chesed will finally be rewarded in the End of Days. The children of Leah will finally be able to inherit the attributes of Rachel, to temper Din with Chesed and internalize Rachamim. The children of Yaakov and the children of Yisrael are one and the same. So, too, despite the tension we may sometimes sense between the children of Leah and the children of Rachel, we are one family. Although we live in a still-imperfect world, in a world that focuses on differences, in the Messianic Age the truth will be clear, even self-evident: Yisrael and Yaakov are one, Leah and Rachel are one. We are one.

 

NOTES

1. A version of this essay with Hebrew sources and footnotes can be found at http://arikahn.blogspot.com/.

2. The Hebrew word is Elohim, this is a disagreement whether the word in this instance is holy (meaning God) or mundane referring to something powerful. See Minchat Shai on this verse.

3. This observation is made by the Ktav V'Kabbalah, Bereishit 35:10.

4. See Tamud Bavli Brachot 13a: Whoever calls Avraham Avram transgresses a positive precept, since it says, Thy name shall be Avraham. R. Eliezer says: He transgresses a negative command, since it says, Neither shall thy name any more be called Avram.

5. Commentary of Baalei Tosfot Bereishit 35:9.

6. Ibn Ezra Bereishit 35:10.

7. Rashi Bereishit 35:10, this idea is echoed by Rabbenu Bachya 32:29.

8. Meshech Chochma Bereishit 35:10.

9. Ha'amek Davar Bereishit 35:10, see Rabenu Bachaya 47:29 who see Yaakov as a name indicating physicality, and Yisrael as a name indicative of the spiritual.

10. See the comments of the Shla Hakodesh, Shaar Ha'otiot, ot heh, where he explains that Yaakov asking to bless his children before he dies is a manifestation of Rachamim.

11. See the comments of the Alshech to Shmot 17:8.

12. See commentary of the Vilna Gaon to the Sifra Deztneuta chapter 3.

13. For more on Rachamim and love see Maharal, Netzach Yisrael chapter 52.

14. See Talmud Bavli Shabbat 89b, where God acknowledges the pain that Yaakov endured raising his children.

15. See Meshech Chochma, Bereishit 35:1.

16. See comments of the Megaleh Amukot Vayechi: When Yaakov is buried in the Cave of the Machpela, he resolves the stalemate between chesed and din.

17. See comments of Sefer Mavo L'chochmat Hakabbala, Shaar Gimel Chapter 3.

18. Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that in many instances Judaism has unresolved conflicts, and the desired resolution is not synthesis, which would dull both of the initial elements, but rather in the unresolved dialectic the beauty emerges. Thus, Adam is "created" twice: once as an individual, and once as a part of society. Both aspects are true expressions of self, and neither should be lost in the merger.

19. See Shekel Hakodesh (Rav Moshe DeLeon).

20. See Midrash Tanchuma (Buber Edition) Parshat Terumah section 9.

21. Elo-him = 86 aleph - 1, lamed - 30, heh - 5, yud - 10, mem - 40.

22. Megaleh Amukot Parshat Va'era.

23. Midrash Tehillim Psalm 105.

24. See Sefer Etz Daat Tov parshat Vayigash.

25. Zohar Devarim 281b.

26. Megale Amukot parshat Vayechi, the name change of Yakov to Yisrael is recorded in chapter 35 verse 10, the death of Rachel follows immediately 35:17-18.

27. See Midrash Rabba Bereishit 71:2: R. Judah b. R. Simon and R. Hanan said in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac: When the Patriarch Yaakov saw how Leah deceived him by pretending to be her sister, he determined to divorce her. But as soon as the Holy One, blessed be He, visited her with children he exclaimed, ' Shall I divorce the mother of these children! ' Eventually he gave thanks for her, as it says, And Israel bowed down [in thanksgiving] for the bed's head (Gen. 47:31): Who was the head of our father Yaakov's bed? Surely Leah. BUT RACHEL WAS AKARAH - E.V. BARREN (29:31). R. Isaac said: Rachel was the chief of the house (the main wife), as it says, BUT RACHEL WAS AKARAH, which means, she was the chief (ikar) of the house. R. Abba b. Kahana said: The majority of those who dined [at Yaakov's table] were Leah's children, therefore Rachel was declared the principal.

28. See Rashi Bereishit 29:17.

29. Shaarei Leshem, Chelek Bet Siman Bet Chapter 3.

30. See Shem Mishmuel Vayetze 5679.

31. See comments of the Beit Halevi Shmot 3:11: The premature redemption caused the need for a subsequent exile.

32. This is a teaching cited in the name of the Arizal, see Beit Halevi Drush #2, also see Zohar Chadosh Yitro.

 

Published: December 6, 2008

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