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In this week’s Parsha, Jacob’s name is changed from Jacob to Israel. Jacob is a name that he gets that has to do with him holding on to the akev, the heel of Esau, as he is coming out of the womb after this strange struggle with an unidentified man in the middle of the night. This man who might well be an angel, tells Jacob that he is not going to be called Jacob anymore, he is going to be called Israel because he struggled with God and man and prevailed.
Why is it so important that Jacob’s name changes? What’s the meaning of this new name?
So I think if you go back to the original naming of Jacob, you actually find something interesting. Rebecca is pregnant with twins.Vayetze harishon admoni kulo ke’aderet sear, ‘The first one comes out red, ruddy, hairy’. Vayikre’u shmo Esav, ‘And they called his name Esau.
Now Esau is a pretty straight forward name for a kid like that. He is already completely made, he is like a little man and the word Esau means ‘made’. The word asah means ‘to do’. Ve’acharei-chen yatza achiv, but after that came out his brother, veyado ochezet ba’akev Esav, ‘and his hand was holding on to the heel of Esau,’ vayikra shmo Yaakov, and he called his name Jacob. ‘He’ presumably is Isaac, his father, but look at the contrast here. Both parents called Esau, Esau. Only one of them calls Jacob, Jacob. What about Rebecca, who is silent? Maybe she didn’t like the name so much. Rebecca isn’t the only one who is a little bit soured on the name ‘Yaakov’. Esau, later on in life, when he is deceived by Jacob, Jacob impersonates him and gets the blessings meant for Esau from his father. Esau cries out, hachi kara shmo Yaakov, that’s why his name is called Jacob. Vayakveni zeh fa’amayim. Now what is that word exactly mean, akveni? Because he heeled me twice? Esau might mean it in the sense of trick but what it really means is like he bent around me you know? Instead of confronting me, he didn’t come here and said, ‘dad, I would like this blessing’, he pretended he was me. He was circuitous with him, he went around him. If you think about a heel, what defines a heel visually? It is part of the body that turns, it is not straight. He wasn’t straight with me. Et-bechorati lakach, ‘First, he took my birthright’, vehineh atah lakach birchati, ‘Now, he took my blessing’. And the truth is, it is not really just that Jacob had dealt with his brother in a circuitous way. Even when Jacob deals with God, early on in his life, there is a circuitous kind of quality. Look at the very first encounter, between Jacob and God. It takes place at the beginning of last week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayetze. He is running away from Esau, who wants to kill him. He stops and has a dream and in that dream there are angels, going up and down of a ladder and God appears to him. ‘I am the God of your fathers’, he says. The land that you are sleeping on, lecha etnenah ulezar’echa, ‘I am going to give it to you and to your progeny’. Vahayah zar’acha ka’afar ha’aretz, ‘you are going to have thousands and thousands, millions of children’, ufaratzta yamah vakedmah, and they’ll burst forth, vehineh anochi imach, ‘and I am going to be with you’, ushmarticha, ‘I am going to watch over you’. Bechol asher-telech vahashivoticha el-ha’adamah hazot, ‘and I will bring you back to this land’, ki lo e’ezovcha, ‘I shall not leave you’, ad asher im-asiti et asher-dibarti lach, ‘until I do that which I have promised you’.
Now God has just made a direct promise to Jacob. When someone make a direct promise to you, there are sort of two ways that you can go about things. One thing you can do is you can directly accept the promise. If it is another person, you can look them in the eye and you can say thank you and shake their hand and that acceptance kind of seals that promise but there is another way to seal a promise, a more roundabout way. Instead of accepting the promise, I can sort of try to lock you in. what incentives can I create that will make more likely that you will actually go through this promise?
It is an indirect way of locking them in the promise and that’s actually the way that Jacob seems to choose. Im yihyeh Elokim imadi, ‘if indeed God is with me’, ushmarani baderech hazeh asher anochi holech, ‘and in fact, he watches over me in this path that I am going’, venatan-li lechem le’echol uveged lilbosh, ‘He gives me bread and he gives me clothing to wear’, veshavti veshalom el-beit avi, ‘and he brings me back in peace to my father’s house; it is like all these things are kind of piling up. Then this is what I will do, I will do this for God’. Vechol asher titen-li aser a’asrenu lach, ‘and I will give you the tenth of all that I have’.
So even here Jacob is using sort of a roundabout response with men, a roundabout response with God. It is the curved heel of Jacob but later on in Jacob’s life, all of that seems to change. After spending years in the house of Laban, Jacob makes a radical and risky choice as he leaves. You know we all know that as Jacob was leaving the house of Laban, he encountered his brother Esau and he is fearful because Esau is coming at him with 400 men but suddenly don’t often realize is that it was Jacob who initiated that contact with Esau. The roundabout thing to do would be to leave Laban’s house and sort of try to avoid Esau. Esau is often somewhere, he can easily get home to Kanan, without alerting his brother in Se’ir, but he chooses not to do that.
Vayishlach Yaakov malachim lefanav el-Esav achiv, ‘he sends out messengers to Esau, seeking out a meeting with him. This isn’t the same Jacob that ran away from his brother. This is the Jacob, seeking to do what he can to put things right between them. Va’eshlechah lehagid ladoni limtzo-chen be’eineicha, he sends Esau gifts to find favor in his eyes but the language for favor, chen, indicates a kind of love, Rashi, limtzo-chen be-eineicha sheani shalem imcha, ‘I’m sending this to show that I am whole with you,’ umevakesh ahavatcha, ‘and I seek your love and companionship’. It is an attempt to reconcile, an attempt that seems headed for disaster when in return here, Esau is approaching him, armed and ready with 400 men by his side. At that point Jacob fears and he approaches God but it is very different that that first conversation when Jacob was running away from Esau.
Put yourself in Jacob’s shoes right now, you feel intense fear. You have split up your camp into two camps so that God forbid, Esau should strike one, at least the other will survive. You are prepared to take a loss of half of your family and now you approach God and you say, God I remember your promise. You are the God, ha’omer elai shuv le’artzecha ulemoladetecha ve’eytivah imach, ‘return and I will make things good for you’.
Now, remembering that promise, here is what Jacob says, katonti, ‘I feel small God’, mikol hachasadim umikol-ha’emet, ‘in the face of all of the kindness that you have shown me’, ki vemakli avarti et-haYarden hazeh ve’atah hayiti lishnei machanot, ‘the first time that I passed over the Jordan river, I came with nothing but my stuff and now look, I have grown. Thank you God. You have given me enough that I actually have two camps here. I have no claims on you, I just have a request. Hatzileni-na miyad achi miyad Esav, ‘please save me from the hands of my brother, from the hand of Esau’. ki-yare anochi oto, ‘I fear him’, pen-yavo vehikani, lest he come and strike me and kill, em al-banim, ‘mother upon children’.
No promises, not if you do this for me, I will do that for you. Just I look you in the eye and make a direct and honest request. I am not seeking to force your hand. I am just telling you the way it is. I am scared, please help me.
It is interesting that fear is what Jacob talks about directly with God right now. The first time you talked with God, fear propelled everything. Rashi, Radak, the Ramban, they all explain Jacob’s fear and suggests that he was seeking to maneuver out of that sense of fear but the fear was a background issue, propelling him to make a roundabout end run. Here the fear is right there on the table and leads to a direct request, please help me.
You know, in this impending encounter with Esau, right before Jacob’s name change, there is a word that appears over and over again in the text, panim, ‘Face’. It starts at the very beginning of our Parsha, vayishlach Yaakov malachim lefanav, ‘Jacob sends messengers before his face, literally to Esau, his brother. When he sends the gifts to Esau, his brother, ki amar, Jacob says, achaprah fanav, ‘perhaps I can find forgiveness before his face’, baminkchah haholechet lefanai, ‘with these gifts that goes before my face’, ve’acharei-chen er’eh fanav, ‘and afterwards I will see his face’, ulai yisa fanai, ‘maybe he will lift up my face’. Face, face, face, everything is about face.
The place that he struggles with the angels, he calls it Peniel, ‘The face of God’. What’s this emphasis on face all of a sudden? Listen to the name change one more time. Yisrael, Israel, ki-sarita im-Elokim ve’im anashim vatuchal, ‘Because you have struggled with men and with God and you have survived the encounter’, how do you struggle? You struggle face to face.
The name change states that Jacob is faced off with God and faced off with men. The name expresses what has already happened, a fundamental change on how Jacob has dealt with God and men. He deserves to be called Israel now. No longer ‘Jacob’, the name his mother never wanted. It is the redemptive name. The man who is no longer roundabout, the man who is direct, Israel perhaps with an echo of yashar kel, straight with God, straight with people. No longer roundabout.
1. Bereishit: Thank You, God...For Not Making Me A Woman?
2. Noach: Why Aren't Dinosaurs In the Torah?
3. Lech Lecha: The Battle For Abraham's Legacy
4. Vayeira: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?
5. Vayeira: Epilogue
6. Chayei Sarah: Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection
7. Toldot: What Is Isaac's Legacy?
8. Vayeitzei: Understanding Rachel's World
9. Vayishlach: From Jacob to Israel
10. Vayeishev: Does God Speak To Us Today?
11. Miketz: Reversing the Sale of Joseph
12. Vayigash: Understanding Pharaoh's Dream
13. Shmot: Does God Really "Love" Us?
14. Va'era: Seeing God in Science
15. Bo: God's Justice In Action
16. Beshalach: Fruit Trees In the Sea?
17. Beshalach: Epilogue
18. Yitro: Seeing Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush
19. Mishpatim: Does Our History Become Laws?
20. Mishpatim: Epilogue
21. Terumah: Angels In the Tabernacle? Part I/2
22. Tetzaveh: Angels In the Tabernacle?- Part 2/2
23. Ki Tisa: A Closer Look At Kiddush
24. Vayakhel-Pekudei: God In Space, God In Time
25. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
26. Vayikra: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?
27. Tzav: A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role
28. Tzav: Epilogue
29. Shemini: What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?
30. Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community
31. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Social Justice...and Sacrifices?
32. Emor: An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
33. Behar-Bechukotai: Walking With God
34. Bamidbar: Why We Count
35. Beha'alotecha: Where It All Went Wrong
36. Shelach: How Can We Relate To Such a Vengeful God?
37. Korach: Why Did Korach Rebel?
38. Chukat: Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?
39. Balak: What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
40. Pinchas: What Is True Leadership?
41. Matot-Masei: The Art of Negotiation
42. Devarim: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 1/2
43. Va'etchanan: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 2/2
44. Eikev: Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
45. Re'eh: Why Do We Need Both Oral and Written Law?
46. Shoftim: The Significance of Saving Private Ryan
47. Ki Teitzei: How To Merit Long Life
48. Ki Tavo: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 1
49. Nitzavim: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 2/2
50. Vayeilech: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 1/3
51. Ha'azinu: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 2/3
52. V'Zot Habracha: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 3/3
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