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.