From Ya’acov to Israel
-Rabbi Ido Fechter-
The meaning of the name Ya’acov is set forth clearly in the Torah: “And afterwards his brother emerged and his hand was grasping Esav's heel (“akev”), and he named him Ya’acov…” Ya’acov’s name, then, was bestowed upon him on account of his having touched Esav’s heel during childbirth, as Ya’acov emerged immediately after Esav. This, apparently, is the source of the term “be’ikvot” (“on the heels of”), which we use to describe something that comes immediately after something else, as it is reminiscent of the “akev,” the heel, suggesting that that which came immediately afterward was on the heels of that which preceded it.
However, the Torah suggests another meaning for the name Ya’acov. When Esav discovers that Ya’acov took Yitzchak’s blessing, Esav exclaims “Is it for this reason that he was named Ya’acov? For he has deceived me twice; he took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing.” Here, Esav seemingly gives the name Ya’acov a different meaning.
Not Ya’acov from the word heel, meaning coming on the heels of something else, rather Ya’acov meaning deceit, as the prophet Yirmiyahu states “Let each one beware of his neighbor, and do not trust any brother; for each brother forges plans (“akov ya’akov”), and every neighbor spreads slander.”
According to this meaning, Esav’s cry is akin to a rhetorical question, as if he is saying: perhaps this is why he was named Ya’acov, as he has deceived (“akov”, or forge) me twice, once when I sold him my birthright and once when he took my blessing.
Which meaning has taken root in Jewish tradition? Surprisingly, it appears to be the second one. When the prophet Hosea rebukes the people of Israel for their corrupt behavior, he recalls the actions of their forefather, Ya’acov: “Now Hashem has a contention with Yehuda, and to visit upon Ya’acov according to his ways; according to his deeds He shall recompense him. In the womb he seized his brother's heel, and with his strength he strove with an angel.”
As Hosea references the name Ya’acov at the beginning of his address with respect to immoral behavior, and in conjunction with the interpretation he himself provides later, “In the womb he seized his brother's heel,” it is clear that he views the meaning of the name in a negative light, as if Ya’acov already deceived his brother in-utero when he attempted to overtake Esav and emerge before him.
This image serves the prophet in his rebuke of Israel for following in the footsteps of their forefather, Ya’acov, and establishing a society rooted in deceit and duplicity.
Even the Torah itself appears to agree with the second option. After Ya’acov fights with the angel and defeats him, the angel gives Ya’acov the following blessing: “Your name shall no longer be called Ya’acov, but Israel, because you have commanding power with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” Rashi sees a contrast in the angel’s words between the names Ya’acov and Israel and writes:“It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through trickery and deceit, but with nobility and openness, and ultimately, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to you in Beth-El and change your name, and there He will bless you.”
According to Rashi, the name Israel comes to repair the name Ya’acov, as the latter is reminiscent of Ya’acov’s trickery through which he acquired Yitzchak’s blessings. The angel promises Ya’acov that this impression will not be everlasting as Hashem will one day acknowledge that Ya’acov indeed merited Yitzchak’s blessings and Ya’acov will be remembered as such, as Israel references power and authority, not having achieved honor in a duplicitous manner.
However, Rashi’s words present a certain difficulty as the text itself interprets the name “Israel” not as authority but rather as a reference to the struggle: “because you have commanding power with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” How does this meaning accommodate the fact that it is in direct contrast to the name Ya’acov, which references duplicity? It appears that the answer lies in the identity of the characters with whom Ya’acov was forced to contend.
“Because you have commanding power with God” is of course a reference to Ya’acov’s struggle with the angel. But who are the “men” who are mentioned in the continuation of the verse? The Rabbis in Genesis Rabbah identified them as Esav and Lavan. Indeed, Ya’acov was forced to confront Esav in the meeting between them, perhaps even to do battle. But what confrontation did Ya’acov have with Lavan? In this case we are dealing with a different type of confrontation.
Ya’acov describes to his wives how in the course of his stay with Lavan the latter tricked him and altered his compensation “ten times.” All the while Ya’acov remained dedicated to Lavan and gave him his all. “I have not brought home to you anything torn [by other animals]; I would suffer its loss; from my hand you would demand it, what was stolen by day and what was stolen at night. I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes.” Ya’acov maintained a high standard of work even as his master deceived him.
In this moral confrontation between Ya’acov and Lavan, Ya’acov proved that it was not duplicity that was his main quality, as was implied at the beginning, but rather it was morality, justice and propriety. This is the point that the angel emphasized when notifying Ya’acov that his name was to be changed. The angel says that “Your name shall no longer be called Ya’acov,” as someone who used trickery to achieve Yitzchak’s blessings, “but Israel, because you have commanding power with God and with men,” as you handled Lavan’s duplicity with integrity and you proved your honesty. Therefore, after such a confrontation, you merit the blessings and they are justified, as you have achieved them through power and authority.
As we know, despite Ya’acov’s name having been changed to Israel, Hashem continued to call him by the name Ya’acov. This shows us that despite Ya’acov’s “reformation” in Lavan’s house, he did not merit the name Israel, the name that symbolizes successful confrontation with injustice and duplicity. This is why the prophets continue to call Israel by the name Ya’acov, with reference to its negative connotation. The challenge then is imposed upon us, Ya’acov’s descendants, to bring about social reform and rectification of injustice and duplicity, and only then will Ya’acov’s blessing be complete and enduring. Trickery will then no longer appear in our name, but rather the struggle against injustice and corruption – “Israel.”
Rabbi Ido Fechter, a “Tzohar” rabbi, is the community rabbi of the “Young Israel” in Ramat Poleg, Netanya.