IS HIS NAME YA’AKOV, YISRAEL OR BOTH?

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How is it that Yaakov doesn’t shed his name after his name changes? The Talmud (Berakhot 13a) asks this question but the answer it gives does not completely resolve the issue. Hence, several commentators offer the following explanation: The Torah continues to use the name Ya’akov even after his name has been changed, when the situation at hand is characterized by the vulnerability of his youth when he was only Ya’akov. At that point, his apparently sheltered life in his parents’ home resulted in his inability to confront Esau head on, and to instead rely on roundabout ways of trying to wrest away the dominant role from his brother.

Thus, for example, when he is afraid to send Binyamin to Egypt (Gen. 42:4), he is fittingly referred to as Ya’akov. He is also Ya’akov in his interview with Pharaoh when he complains of a hard life (Gen. 47:7-10). In contrast, the name Yisrael is reserved for his bolder actions or thoughts that are more in line with how the mysterious wrestler described the reason for the name Yisrael: ‘For thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed’ (Gen. 32:29). An example of this would be when having just heard (as Ya’akov) that Joseph is alive, he turns into Yisrael and decides to take bold action and go with his family to Egypt (Gen. 45:28). Though it doesn’t work easily in every situation, the distinction works quite broadly and has a fair amount of explanatory power.

Still there seems to be something more going on here. The idea that one should only have one true name is because a name is supposed to reflect one’s identity. But what happens when a person has a double identity?

In actual fact, there is ample evidence to suggest the existence of a double identity here. The careful reader will notice a constant and unique duality that exemplifies the life of Ya’akov and thereby makes him exceptional. His two (sets of) wives are only the beginning – if perhaps the most important indicator – of his double personality. The duality denoted by his very different wives is in turn institutionalized through the rivalry for leadership among their sons, primarily represented by Yehudah and his descendants on the one hand and Yosef and his descendants on the other. Finally, there is a cluster of clues to this duality specifically around the narratives of Ya’akov receiving his new name (which, we by now might have predicted, occurs twice). The story is significantly prefaced by his visit to Mahanayim – the double camp (Gen. 32:3), and bracketed by his two visits to Bet El (Gen. 28 and 35). Moreover, Ya’akov’s preparation for his meeting with Esav includes the sending of two delegations and the division of his camps into two parts, so that if one is destroyed, the other will survive. Survival of a half is only conceivable if it is not wholly dependent on the other half, which should not be taken for granted in view of the later frequent comparison of a nation to one body requiring all of its parts.

The notion that Torah is specifically trying to make us notice Ya’akov’s unusual double personality also helps us understand some of the strange juxtapositions of the two names, such as when he strengthens himself to bless Joseph’s children (Gen. 48:2-3). Though he is by now Yisrael, the text tells us that he is also still Ya’akov even when he acts like the former. The same occurs in reverse when Ya’akov offers his parting words to Shimon and Levi, telling them that his dislike of their militancy is not only true of Ya’akov but also of Yisrael (Gen. 49:7). Thus, though one personality will dominate at any given time, the other personality is always still with him.

It may be well be that if Ya’akov represents a more sheltered and passive approach to life embodied by his childhood, and Yisrael represents a bolder, confrontational approach embodied more in his later years, the reason for Ya’akov’s split personality may be rooted in his need to maintain the legacy of both his father and his grandfather – echoed by his appealing to the God of Avraham and the God of Yitzchak (Gen. 32:10). From this perspective, while Ya’akov’s youth resembles that of his passive and isolated Israel-constrained father, his adult life resembles the trials and tribulations of Avraham among the nations. In this sense, Avraham’s outgoing personality is also what Ya’akov took from his brother Esav which, as some have suggested, Yitzchak had hoped would have actually been embodied by Esav rather than Ya’akov. Yet for Ya’akov to successfully carry on both vastly differentiated legacies would likely require taking on a dual personality even during the latter period of his life. And this is apparently exactly what he did.

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker and the author of four books of contemporary Torah commentary. His parshah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Rabbi Nataf is also the author of, "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus"