The Meaning Behind Jacob's Name Change to Israel | Aleph Beta

How Jacob Becomes Israel

What Does It Mean To Wrestle With God And Prevail?

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In Parshat Vayishlach, we read about the strange encounter between Jacob and the mysterious, unnamed “man” who wrestles with him. At the end of the encounter, the man declares that Jacob now possesses a new name – Yisrael, Israel – for he struggled with God and man, and prevailed.

This moment is clearly meant to be profoundly significant. And yet it leaves us with so many unanswered questions. For instance, what is the man referring to when he says that Jacob “struggled with God and man and prevailed”? Is that a reference to their fight, or does it mean something else? Further, what did Jacob do to warrant a name change – did Jacob’s character undergo some sort of radical shift? If so, what was it? Lastly, how does this new name compare to his previous name, Jacob – is it just different, or is it somehow a kind of improvement?

Join Rabbi Fohrman as he takes a close look at Jacob’s life, and discovers a pattern in the way Jacob interacts with everyone around him. This pattern may illuminate the cryptic words of the mysterious figure – and teach us how we can all be more honest and trusting people.


Hi everybody, it's Rabbi David Fohrman, you are watching Aleph Beta and welcome to Parshat Vayishlach.

Why Did God Change Jacob's Name to Israel?

In this week's parsha, Jacob's name is changed from Yaakov to Yisrael. Yaakov is a name that he gets that has to do with him holding on to the “ekev”, the heel of Esav 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 Yaakov that he is not going to be called Yaakov anymore, he is going to be called Israel because he struggled with God and man and prevailed. But why is it so important that Jacob's name changes? What's the meaning of this new name?

Before Jacob Became Israel

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 Esav. Now Esav 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 Esav 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 Esav, “vayikra shmo Yaakov”, and he called his name Jacob. 'He' presumably is Isaac, his father, but look at the contrast here. Both parents called Esav, Esav. 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'. Esav, later on in life, when he is deceived by Jacob, Jacob impersonates him and gets the blessings meant for Esav from his father. Esav cries out, “hachi kara shmo Yaakov”, that's why his name is called Jacob. “Vayakveni zeh pa'amayim”. Now what is that word exactly mean, akveni? Because he heeled me twice? Esav 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”, and now, he took my blessing.

And the truth is, it is not really just that Yaakov had dealt with his brother in a circuitous way. Even when Yaakov 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 Vayeitzei. He is running away from Esav, 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 makes 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 the 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.

If indeed God is with me, and in fact, he watches over me in this path that I am going, and He gives me bread and he gives me clothing to wear, and he brings me back in peace to my father's house... It’s like all these things are kind of piling up. Then this is what I will do, I will do this for God, I will give you a tenth of all that I have'. So even here Yaakov is using sort of a roundabout response with men, a roundabout response with God. It is the curved heel of Yaakov. 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 Yaakov was leaving the house of Laban, he encounters his brother Esav and he is fearful because Esav is coming at him with 400 men. But something we don't often realize is that it was Yaakov who initiated that contact with Esav. The roundabout thing to do would be to leave Laban's house and sort of try to avoid Esav. Esav is off in Se'ir somewhere, he can easily get home to Canaan, without alerting his brother in Se'ir, but he chooses not to do that.

The Changes In Jacob, Before He Was Renamed

“Vayishlach Yaakov malachim lefanav el-Esav achiv”, 'he sends out messengers to Esav, seeking out a meeting with him. This isn't the same Jacob that ran away from his brother. This is the Yaakov, seeking to do what he can to put things right between them. “Va'eshlechah lehagid ladoni limtzo-chen be'eineicha”, he sends Esav 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, Esav is approaching him, armed and ready with 400 men by his side. At that point Yaakov fears and he approaches God, but it is very different that that first conversation when Jacob was running away from Esav.

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, Esav 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 Yaakov 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 Esav “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 Yaakov talks about directly with God right now. The first time you talked with God, fear propelled everything. Rashi, Radak, the Ramban, they all explain Yaakov’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.

The Meaning Behind 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”, Yaakov sends messengers before his face, literally to Esav, his brother. When he sends the gifts to Esav, 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 Yaakov is faced off with God and faced off with men. The name expresses what has already happened, a fundamental change in how Yakov has dealt with God and man. He deserves to be called Israel now. No longer 'Yaakov', the name his mother never wanted. It is the redemptive name. The man who is no longer roundabout, the man who is direct, “Yisrael” perhaps with an echo of yashar kel, straight with God, straight with people. No longer roundabout.

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