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Jacob’s Incomplete Name Change

I noticed something very curious. Abraham’s name was changed from Abram to Abraham (Genesis 17:5) and that’s how he became permanently known. Likewise Sarai became Sarah (17:15). But God changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen. 35:10) – and even so the name Jacob continues to be used throughout the Torah (along with Israel). If anything, Jacob is used much more often – even right there in the continuation of Gen. 35. Why did his name change seem to only partly take effect?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your good observation. The Talmud (Brachos 12b-13a) notes the same and concludes that Jacob did not have his name changed as did Abraham and Sarah. Rather, he was given an additional name. Israel would be his primary name but Jacob would still be used as well, as his secondary name. The Talmud notes that this is clear because God Himself later addresses Jacob using his earlier name – in Genesis 46:2. And of course, as you observe, that name is still very common throughout the Torah – especially in reference to Jacob the person as opposed to the nation descended from him (almost always known as “the Children of Israel”).

Why the difference? Because there is a basic distinction between what happened to Abraham and Sarah, and what happened to Jacob. Abraham and Sarah did not entirely lose their past names; they were just slightly modified and improved. Abraham was originally Abram (really Avraham and Avram). “Av-ram” is short for “a father of Aram.” Abraham was originally to be a leader in Aram, his earlier country of residence. But he outgrew it. Because of his tremendous efforts to discover God and spread His name, God granted him a new name, reflecting his new mission: Av-[ra]-ham means – as the Torah explains (Gen. 17:5) – “father of a multitude (hamon) [of nations].” (As Rashi to that verse notes, although the letter ‘reish’ was no longer needed, it did not lose its coveted place in Abraham’s name).

Sarah too grew from being a local princess (Sarai = “my noblewoman”) to become Sarah = noblewoman, with no limiting pronoun – to all of mankind (Brachos 13a). Thus, their previous names were no longer relevant and no longer used.

Regarding Jacob, however, something different occurred. He received a second name, not replacing his first name but complementing it. My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig explained that this is because he did not simply outgrow his first mission in life. He took on a second one. He now had two names, reflecting his two purposes in life. And the storyline behind it is fascinating.

When Jacob was young, the Torah describes him as a “plain man dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). He was at first a private person, one who sheltered himself from the outside world and immersed himself in the study of Torah. (The Sages describe the “tents” he dwelled in as the study houses of Shem (son of Noah) and Eiber (Shem’s great-grandson.)

Jacob, however, had a twin – his wicked brother Esau. The Torah (loc. cit.) describes him as a hunter, a man of the field. Esau thrived on physical activity, expressing it by hunting down his prey. As the Sages make it clear, this was only the beginning. He turned to a life of lust, war and conquest – antithetical to the reflectiveness and appreciation of wisdom which was Jacob.

Had Esau been righteous, he might have used his aggressive nature in positive ways – becoming a leader of nations – bringing them to the belief in God his family stood for. This is what Isaac hoped would become of Esau and why he favored him. Esau and Jacob may have together formed the Jewish people – Esau fulfilling the physical and administrative role of leading the nations to God, with Jacob the scholar being the soul of the nation. Even as Esau became progressively worse (the worst of which he hid from his father), Isaac still hoped his son could be brought into the fold, fulfilling his mission properly in spite of his faults.

Esau, however, proved himself completely unworthy of the task he was to fill. And this is where the story becomes interesting. Isaac was still not willing to part with the dreams he had for his wayward son. But Rebecca and Jacob knew it was not to be. Jacob “stole” the firstborn right from Esau, and later Rebecca had him take the blessings meant for his brother. In doing this, Jacob assumed Esau’s role in the world. He would no longer be the quiet, reserved Torah scholar. He would become a world leader – one who has to contend with the wicked of the world – such as Laban and Esau.

Jacob thus was granted a second name. Israel (Yisrael) relates to the word “sar” – master or nobleman: “for you have contended (‘sarisa’) with the divine and with man and you have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). Yaakov now had two missions in life (and he likewise married not only his own designated wife, Rachel, but also Esau’s intended spouse – Leah). He would still be Jacob the man of spirit and Torah scholar. But he would also be Yisrael, the world leader, assuming the mission his brother refused to shoulder.

For a much more complete discussion of this important topic, see this 3-part series, beginning here.

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