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Parashat Veyehi 5783

January 3, 2023

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Wrestling With Our Names: Lessons from Jacob/Israel
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayehi
By Rabbi Rena Kieval (’06)

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

© Translation: 2004, Marcia Lee Falk

In these words, the Israeli poet known as Zelda imagines that we acquire different names as we pass through the different phases and places of our lives. The poem asks us to consider by what name(s) we see ourselves, by what name(s) we are seen by others, and even by what name(s) we place ourselves in the natural world, in the many and varied moments that make up our lives.

In Parashat VaYehi, as we look back on Jacob’s life and read of his death, we are left with a puzzling use of names. We know that in the Torah, names are significant. The names of individuals often reflect their character, or something about the circumstances of their birth, or about some aspect of their relationship with God. Jacob is a prime example. His name derives from the Hebrew word for “heel,” and the Torah tells us that at birth he held on to the heel of his twin brother Esau. (Genesis 25:26) In addition, in Hebrew as in English slang, the word ‘heel’ suggests slyness, hence the evocative and unflattering name that Biblical translator Everett Fox gives to Jacob: “Heel-Sneak.” Jacob’s name reflects perfectly both his physical position at birth and the fact that at several significant points in his life, he was embroiled in deception, first as perpetrator, and later as a victim.

But in Jacob’s name also lies a puzzle. In two separate profound moments in Parashat VaYishlah, Jacob’s name was apparently definitively changed to Israel, from Heel-Sneak to God-Wrestler. First, after wrestling in the night with a mysterious being, Jacob is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) A few chapters later God reiterates and confirms the name change, saying “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” The narrator then affirms: “Thus God named him Israel.” (Genesis 35:10)

Yet, even after these scenes, Israel the man continues to be called Jacob. One passage even has God calling to Yisrael in a vision by night, but saying: “Yakov Yakov!” (Genesis 46:2) And we still refer to our third patriarch as Jacob; rarely if ever do we name him Israel.

When Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah, their original names were never used again. So why is the name Jacob retained? Biblical commentators have puzzled over this phenomenon. Rabbi Benno Jacob actually did a count, and reported that from the time Jacob’s name was changed, the text calls him Jacob another 45 times, and refers to him as Israel 34 times. Rabbi Jacob and other commentators postulate that the name Israel is used when our patriarch deals with spiritual matters, while the name Jacob is used for physical and material matters. In other words, sometimes he is Jacob the man, with human concerns, strengths and weaknesses, while at other times he is something greater than himself: Israel, the progenitor of a nation, a man and a nation in a special relationship with God.

Robert Alter suggests that the incomplete name change reflects the “moral ambiguities” of Jacob’s life and character. He notes that rather than Israel replacing Jacob, the names Jacob and Israel become synonyms, used in parallel in Biblical poetry. (Comment on Genesis 32:29.)

Is Jacob/Israel a heel-sneak or a God-wrestler? The Torah text itself seems to be wrestling with the two names, implying that he is both. He always retains his “yakov-ness,” with his rich and complicated human biography. At the same time, as Yisrael, he stands for and propels the future and the larger destiny of his family who will become the people of Israel. Perhaps the name Israel is not even meant to be descriptive of the man, but is, rather, aspirational, reflecting the larger context and meaning of Jacob’s life.

This week’s parasha VaYehi alternates numerous times between the names Jacob and Israel, as though to call attention to the many layers of Jacob’s life, even to its very end. But notably, there is one scene in which only the name Yisrael is used. It is Yisrael who blesses his grandchildren. As he does, he also prescribes how Yisrael – the people of Israel – will offer blessings in the future, through Ephraim and Menashe.

The connection of the name Yisrael with blessing supports the insight of Rashi, who understands blessing as the context for Jacob’s initial name change. He notes that when Jacob demands a blessing from his wrestling partner, that stranger responded – your name is no longer Jacob, meaning, your blessings will no longer be derived from your “yakov-ness.” Your blessings will now come from you as Yisrael, they emerge from your struggles with God and from your descendants and their future as a nation (Rashi on Gen 32:29)

After Israel blesses his grandsons, he injects an added ambiguous statement about names when he says, “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac…,” specifying that throughout time Israel will bless our sons with the names Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:20) In other words, he makes the odd statement that future generations are to remember the patriarchs’ names by invoking two other, different names!

We know very little about the lives of Ephraim and Menashe or why they are chosen as symbols of blessing. Some speculate that their names evoke family harmony, as they are the first siblings in our Torah family who are not described as being in conflict with each other. But by using their names, perhaps the Torah also means to convey that even as we recall and revere the early, original names, we also move forward with new generations, always acquiring new names throughout time.

So it is with Jacob himself, who never loses his birth name, but acquires a new name with great import. Carrying two names may be his great flaw, or his greatness. Or maybe it just makes him human. Real people are not one-dimensional. As the poet Zelda writes – in a real, rich life, we may acquire many names.

The ambiguities of names and naming in the narratives of Jacob/Israel reflect the complexities of being human. These ambiguities also challenge us to consider and ask ourselves about our own names. Even as we may accept and embrace our given names, what new names do we aspire to? What names enable us to see the bigger picture, the larger context of our lives? What names lift us to higher goals and lead us to deeper meaning?

May each of us seek and find our names that are a source of true blessing, blessing for us and blessing for others.
Rena Kieval was ordained as a rabbi by AJR in 2006. She retired in June 2022 as full-time rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY, and continues to teach, write and study.