Vayishlach: What’s in a Name?

Be Yourself

On his way home to the Land of Israel to reunite with his brother Esau, our patriarch Jacob wrestles a mysterious “man.” Our Sages teach that this was not a human but the ministering angel of Esau. Jacob and the angel grapple until dawn, and before parting the celestial being asks Jacob his name, then tells him, “Your name will no longer be said to be Jacob, but Israel. You have become great (sar) before God and man. You have won.” (Gen. 32:29, Aryeh Kaplan translation). After this heavenly-decreed name change, the Torah surprisingly continues to call him Jacob. When Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, he is no longer referred to by his previous name. So why is Jacob still called Jacob?

The word “Jacob” comes from the Hebrew word for “heel.” Jacob gets his name because he is born grasping the heel of his elder brother Esau. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that at key moments of Jacob’s early life, he metaphorically holds on to his brother’s heel. He purchases Esau’s birthright; he puts on Esau’s clothes; he claims to be Esau to get the firstborn blessing. Rabbi Sacks says, “Jacob was the man who wanted to be Esau. Why so? Because Esau had one thing he did not have: his father’s love.” ‘Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob.’ (Gen. 25:28)

The wrestling angel’s explanation of Jacob’s new name uses the Hebrew root “sar,” which connotes greatness. Rabbi Sacks sees the new name as a challenge from God: Do not long to be someone else. Be great by being yourself. “The fact that the Torah and tradition still use the word Jacob, not just Israel, tells us that the problem has not disappeared.” Throughout Jewish history and still today, many Jews are uncomfortable with being different, instead thinking “We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands…” (Ezekiel 20:32.) In Rabbi Sacks’ words: “the challenge issued by the angel still echoes today. Are we Jacob, embarrassed by who we are? Or are we Israel, with the courage to stand upright and walk tall in the path of faith?” Jews have a unique mission in this world to be God’s representatives. Let us not try to blend in and be like everybody else, but instead embrace our own unique heritage and destiny!


Image: “Jacob Fighting the Angel” by Jurgen Ovens, 17th cent.




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