The naming of Jacob and a midrash on Israel – Parashat Vayishlach

Twice in this sidra we are told about the name given to Jacob. The first time happens at the Ford of Yabok after he has wrestled all night before meeting his brother Esau again. At his demand as the dawn rises he requests a blessing and his name Jacob is changed to Israel, (Vayomer: lo Ya’akov yei’ameir od shimcha, ki im Yisrael, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with people, and have prevailed.’  (Genesis 32:28-29)

The second time is a few chapters later, when having met Esau he has reached Beit El, the place we are told was the scene of his original meeting with God when, having fled his family after cheating Esau of the birthright blessing he dreamed of a ladder from heaven to earth and made his deal with God should he come back safely to his own land. This time we are clear about who is doing the naming, but with less clarity about what the new name is supposed to mean:  “Vayomer Elohim lo, shimcha Ya’akov. Lo yikarei  shimcha od Ya’akov ki im Yisrael yihyeh sh’mecha, Vayikra et sh’mo Yisrael” And God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name. And God called his name Israel”

So the first time we have a reason for the name given to Jacob – albeit one that is a bit of a stretch for our imaginations – by a shadowy figure who may or may not really be there; And a few chapters later we have certainty that his name is given to him by God but no reason given for the name.

The names Jacob and Israel have been the focus of much discussion and debate over the generations – after all we call ourselves B’nei Ya’akov – the children not of Abraham or Isaac, but of Jacob; our pleople and land are named Israel and any other name would seem unthinkable.  We descend in a very intimate way from this naming; we take the identities as our own, we describe ourselves as a people who struggle with God and who survive.

Much of the debate centres around the interchangeability or not of the two names and what they indicate in each context. Everywhere else in bible when your name is changed it is changed forever and there is no going back to the old one. Your name signifies a central essence, it is you and you are it, be it description, aspiration or significant memory, names in bible describe what that person most essentially and existentially is. Yet here we have a patriarch whose name is changed by God in dramatic circumstances with the words “your name shall no longer be Jacob”, who continues to be called by his original name as well as the new name throughout the text until his death.

Let us look a little closer at the names. Ya’akov/Jacob means to be curved, like a heel (and the pun works in English as well as in Hebrew).  In truth, Jacob is a bit of a heel, someone perfectly able to treat his twin brother without real respect, pulling him back in order to gain advantage. Israel means – well what does it mean? Bible tells us it means one who has struggled with God, though etymologically it would make more sense to be from Yashar El – the one whom God straightens out.

Bible though has a different interest to that of etymologists and does not need to follow the rules of grammar in the way that we might expect it to. It wants to tell us something important. Jacob has struggled with God and with Humankind and has “tuchal” – variously understood as “prevailed”, “been able, continued. So the name is given – Yod, S/hin, Reish, Alef, Lamed.

Taking this word apart, in the full knowledge that Jacob has not only wrestled with God (Elohim) but also with Humankind (Anashim) we can see that the word begins with the word for human being – Ish, and ends with the name for God – El. And what is left in the middle is the letter Reish. The name can be understood as signifying something of the relationship between God and Humanity; the letter Reish is the bridge between the two, the place of the wrestling and struggling which is the pathway to God.

What is this connecting letter, the Reish? Well it comes almost at the end of the Hebrew alphabet, but its meaning is primarily to do with beginning – it is connected to the word Rosh meaning ‘head’ or Rishon -‘beginning’.  The word ‘Reish’ is also part of the very first word of Torah, Bereishit, famously translated as ‘in the beginning’ but actually part of a very ambiguous phrase – it could mean “with Reishit God created….”  or even “for the sake of Reishit God created” and the rabbinic traditional exegetical process then develops to understand “Reishit” as meaning “Wisdom”. And what is true Wisdom? Surely it is Torah. So Jacob becoming Israel could be seen as the realigning (from the curvature of the heel to the straightening of yashar) of the relationship between God and humanity through Reish, through new beginnings or through Torah.

Two events happen in between the two texts about the renaming of Jacob.

One is the meeting and reconciliation with his brother Esau, after which Jacob continues his journey to Canaan and Esau back to his own land.

The second event is the story of Dinah and the Prince of Shechem, where Jacob is passive and his sons unleash horrible violence upon the Shechemites when they are recovering from their circumcisions in order to be able to marry into the family of Jacob. Jacob is passive but he does speak and act at the end – He accuses Shimon and Levi of putting himself and his family into danger by their actions and he follows God’s imperative to go to Beit El and to fulfil his vow made there when he had woken from his dream of the ladder. Jacob takes all the idolatrous artefacts from his household and buries them in Shechem, and then he brings his newly cleansed household to Beit El ready to start his new life in the Land.  It is at this point that God names him once more.

In each of these stories there is one common thread – at first Jacob is passive and then reactive to the immediate circumstance, then he eventually  does act to try to do the right thing, and then he moves on.

The letter Reish is written as a curve, rather like a person with head bent over. It is often mistaken for the letter Dalet which is all sharp angles and straight lines. It has been noted that the Reish symbolises the one who searches out a number of directions, bending and swaying around, while the Dalet looks neither right nor left but moves onwards to its destination. If the Reish in Israel is the bridge between humanity and God, the process that takes the one to the other, then it makes a lot of sense that this letter is chosen, the one that bends and sways, the one that symbolises new beginnings and uncertainties, fresh starts and reservations. For that is what we always do, we feel our way through life uncertainly, responding as best we can with what we know, making mistakes. We make mistakes but then we make another new beginning. We use our heads and increase our wisdom as we experience our lives, and we hope that this life journey will eventually bring us closer to God.

Jacob becomes Israel but stays Jacob till his death. He does not prevail, instead he increases in his ability to live life even while making mistakes.  Scripture is right to see both his reality (Jacob) and his aspiration (Israel) alongside each other, for sometimes one is expressed and sometimes the other. We don’t find holiness in one moment or with one action – holiness is the sum of all our actions and the way we learn from them and change because of them.  Jews are certainly Israel in that we struggle with God and with people as did Jacob. But I would take issue with the understanding of “tuchal” as meaning we prevail in the struggle. Rather I would rather see that verb in its more primary meaning of being able. We struggle to bridge many gaps in life, we struggle to build a bridge between the heavens and the earth, between aspiration and reality, between people who find each other difficult – and the naming of Jacob reminds us that each failure, as well as each success, can bring us closer to forming that bridge, and making it secure.

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