Vayishlach: A Path to Follow

Twice in this portion, Jacob is told he will henceforth be called “Israel”:

“Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out,” Jacob is told after his wrestling match on the bank of the Jabbok river (Genesis/Breishit 32:23-31). In Genesis/Breishit 35:9-10, we read: “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, ‘You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He named him Israel.”

In his Five Books of Moses* (2004), Robert Alter comments on this name change:

It is nevertheless noteworthy–and to my knowledge has not been noted –that the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled. Whereas Abraham is invariably called “Abraham” once the name is changed from “Abram,” the narrative continues to refer to this patriarch in most instances as “Jacob.”

This is an odd statement, given the plethora of comments — from very different views of Torah, stretching back centuries — referencing the fact that “the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled.” Here are just a few:

Jacob no more. But in fact the appellation Jacob continues at once. Critics have attempted to distinguish between an “Israel tradition” and a “Jacob tradition.” If these every existed, they have been thoroughly interwoven, and the names have now become interchangeable. — Plaut,* (1981)

Your name is Jacob. Although He was about to give Jacob the additional name of Isreal, God told him that he would continue to be called Jacob (Ramban [16th Century CE Italy]; Sforno [12th Century CE Spain]). From that time onward, the name Jacob would be used for matters pertaining to physical and mundane matters, while the name Israel would be used for matters reflecting the spiritual role of the Patriarch and his descendants (R’ Bachya [Ibn Paquda, 14th Century CE Spain]).

Although both Abraham and Jacob were given new names there is a basic difference between them, for the Talmud states that anyone who refers to Abraham as Abram is in violation of a negative commandment (Berachos 13a), whereas both names continue to be used for Jacob….

Or HaChaim [18th Century CE Italy] explains the reason for the difference. Every name in the Torah reprsents the sould that God emplaced in that person. Consequently, the name “Jacob” represents his soul, while the name “Israel” represents an enhancement of the soul, which Jacob earned by growing and transcending the mission signified by the original name…. — Stone,* (1993)

Alter does elaborate a bit differently (although I’m not sure that it’s a unique perspective):

Thus, “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it — a practice reflected in the parallelism of biblical poetry, where “Jacob” is always used in the first half of the line and “Israel,” the poetic variation, in the second half.

For more on this rich path, here are just two of the many further avenues to explore: Shefa Gold’s Torah Journey, including a personal spiritual practice, for this portion and/or a discussion of universalism versus nationalism based on the work of Rav Kook (1865-1935).

*See Source Materials for Torah commentary citations and further details.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Vayishlach: Language and Translation

Now Dinah — the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob — went out to look over the daughters of the land [lirot bi-banot ha-aretz]. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivvite, the prince of the region, saw her [va-yareh]; he took her, lay with her, and violated her.

And Dinah, Leah’s daughter, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land. And Shechem, the son or Hamor the Hivite, prince of the land, saw her and took her and lay with her and abused her. Continue Reading

Vayishlach: Great Source(s)

The uterine struggle between Jacob and Esau [Genesis/Breishit 25:22-26] prefigures the momentous struggle with the angel [Gen. 32:23-31]. It is through wrestling in the night with a divine being that Jacob acquires the nation’s name. “They name shall be no more called Jacob, but Israel,” says the divine opponent, “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed (Gen. 32:28). Jacob does not become angelic as a result of this nocturnal encounter, but the struggle reveals a certain kind of intimacy with God that is unparalleled.

The nation, not unlike the eponymous father, is both the chosen son and the rebel son, and accordingly its relationship with the Father is at once intimate and strained….Continue Reading

Vayeitzei: Language and Translation

Jacob departed from Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place which he arranged his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamt and behold! A ladder [sulam (samech-lamed-mem)] was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! angels of God [malachei elohim] were ascending and descending on it. And behold! HASHEM was standing over him [alav]…

…and, look, a ramp [sulam] was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and look, messengers of God [malachei elohim] were going up and coming down it. And, look, the LORD was poised over him [alav]….

…and YHVH was standing beside him [alav]…
Continue Reading

Toldot: A Path to Follow

This portion includes an episode (Breishit/Genesis 26:1-11), beginning “Now there was a famine in the land,” which closely mirrors a similar story in Breishit/Genesis 12:10-20. Isaac involves Rebecca in a “say you’re my sister” experience in Gerar which is very akin to the one through which Abraham put Sarah in Egypt.
Continue Reading

Toldot: Language and Translation

The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome [tam**] man abiding in tents. Isaac loved Esau for game that was in his mouth; but Rebecca loved Jacob.

Jacob simmered a stew [va-yazed yaakov nazid], and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff [min-ha-adom ha-adom] for I am exhausted.” (He therefore called his name Edom.) Continue Reading

Toldot: Great Source(s)

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Yaakov stories are notable in the manner in which they portray the two levels of biblical reality: divine and human. Throughout the stories human beings act according to normal (though often strong) emotions, which God then uses to carry out his master plan. In this cycle one comes to feel the interpretive force of the biblical mind at work, understanding human events in the context of what God wills. It is a fascinating play between the ideas of fate and free will, destiny and choice — a paradox which nevertheless lies at the heart of the biblical conceptions of God and humankind.Continue Reading