Parashat Vayishlah

By Rabbi Bob Freedman

At the end of this week’s parashah, Vayishlah, we learn that Jacob came back to his home, the land where his fathers had lived (Genesis 31:3). Specifically, he returned to Beit-El, the place where he first encountered God, the birthplace of his spiritual existence. What else is “home” but our spiritual center? We may bathe, sleep, and eat in a house to which we acquire the right of possession, but our home is the place from which flows the source of our connection and wholeness.

Each of us finds our “home” in our own way. The three patriarchs, whose paths to being paradigmatic humans were very different, are our examples. Abraham found his home by going out from his origins to a brand new place. God gave Isaac the divine blessing when he re-opened the wells that his father had dug, metaphorically reclaiming wisdom and nurture that had been lost during years of strife. Jacob became whole and balanced only when he returned to his “spiritual home,” Beit El.

The Torah hints at this by telling the story of Jacob’s second name. When he arrived in Beit-El Jacob built an altar to “God who answered me when I was in trouble and has been with me on the road that I traveled.” (Genesis 35:3) Immediately God appeared to him again, or was it that Jacob had relocated the same God-place in himself that he had discovered many years before? From that place came the declaration, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Yisrael shall be your name.” Oddly, though, the new name did not stick; for when next God spoke to him, as he was on his way to Egypt, God still called him Jacob: “Jacob, Jacob, … do not fear to go to Egypt.” (Genesis 46:2-3).

It seems that Yisrael’s new name was not a replacement, but a completion! His two names signified that by returning “home,” the two parts of his life- “Jacob” representing his past and “Yisrael” his future-were integrated into a complete personality. In the first part of his life, he was called Ya-akov because he was born grasping Esau’s heel (ekev). During that time he lived mostly in the aspect of material things of which the heel, continually treading the ground, is the lowest. Much of what he did was in reaction to the fear that he would be hungry, neglected, cheated, injured, or even killed. Upon returning “home” he received a second name that proclaimed him ready to struggle-YSR EL- with spiritual realms. But the second did not supercede the first. That God called him by both meant that the two parts of his nature were now ready to be one balanced whole.

Jacob’s life journey teaches that we serve God both in intellectual and spiritual activities and in physical, material realms. May our study of Torah help each of us find our way “home,” where we can live connected to the Source of wholeness.


Rabbi Bob Freedman lives in Princeton, NJ, and is the cantor at Society Hill Congregation in Philadelphia.