Friday, November 19, 2010

Parshat Vayishlach - פרשת וישלח

In this week's Parsha, Ya'akov is given a new name - Yisrael. Unlike other biblical charachters, though, he retains his original name, and the Torah continues to refer to him by this name as well as the new.

The difference here is that while characters such as Avraham and Yehoshua underwent transititions that meant that a new, more appropriate name was requried, Yisrael was not intended as a replacement as Ya'akov remained an apt name. How can we understand this?

If we understand Ya'akov's role as the final patriarch before the generation of the twelve tribes, we can see that he had not one, but two defining qualities. It is imperative to understand the Jewish nation's continuing mission in the context of Ya'akov two names.

The Kli Yakar explains that the two names of Ya'akov and Yisrael are analogous to two exiles and redemptions of Am Yisrael. He writes that the name Ya'akov (which etymologically derives from the word "heel") is meant as a parallel to the redemption of the exile in Egypt. He describes that redemption as not being the most notable and prominent of the redemptions of the Jewish nation, rather that its miracles should be regarded as “Tafel,” almost as a bonus. It is said in the Bereshit Rabbah that similarly the name Ya’akov should be regarded as secondary to the primary Yisrael. And if that is so, the two are really two aspects of one particular thing. Both names are necessary to understand the concept of Ya’akov/Yisrael.

Previously, I read on Chabad's website that, "Jacob and Israel are two different names, with two different meanings. While it is true that Israel represents a loftier state of being than Jacob (thus the Israel element in Jacob is "no longer Jacob"), there are certain virtues to the Jacob state that the Israel state cannot possess. So Jacob remains a name for both the third Patriarch and for the Jewish people as a whole. Israel might represent a higher stage in the Jew's development than Jacob, but the greatness of the Jewish people lies in that there are both Jacob Jews and Israel Jews, and Jacob and Israel elements within each individual Jew."

Turning to the source of Ya'akov's new name, it is interesting to note that he takes his it from Esav’s angel. This was the angel that opposed him at the river, the angel that wrestled with him in a ferocious struggle. The angel’s name was Yisrael, which as the Kli Yakar points out means “Straight to Hashem.” Now, I don’t know how you understood the struggle, but however you read it, it doesn’t seem as if the angel was assisting Ya’akov in his task of getting closer to Hashem. It doesn’t seem as if he was doing anything like getting him towards Hashem, on the contrary, he was opposing Ya’akov, blocking Ya’akov’s path! It is instructive to note that every angel is named after the very specific task he is assigned, so how can it be that this angel seems hell-bent on stopping Ya’akov?

The Kli Yakar's answer is revealing in its depth. The angel was doing exactly what was required of him. To him, it very possibly made little sense at all, but the angel, somewhat paradoxically, fulfilled his task. We all know that this world is not a simple place. Our task is not always obvious, and often takes painful turns and requires arduous journeys. Yet if we stick to our task, we will find the straightest path to Hashem.

Returning to our orginal question of the two names, I see two different answers. Rashi makes the straightforward suggestion that while the name Yaaakov indicates subservience, Yisrael signifies strength and victory. Another view is offered by the Meshech Chochma, who sees the different names as expressing the distinction between Yaakov as an individual versus Yisrael as a national identity. Thus, according to Meshech Chochma, God addresses "Yisrael" exclusively when, and only when, there are national issues at hand. For this reason, both names are retained.
Shabbat Shalom!

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