“From Jacob to Israel”
By Rabbi Ronnie Serr, AJRCA Professor of Hasidic Thought
After twenty years of difficulty conceiving, Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, becomes pregnant with twins. HaShem reveals to her that her younger son, Jacob, will be the one to continue the line of faith in the One G-d, a line that began with Abraham and continued through his son Isaac. When the time comes to bless his successor, Isaac calls for his eldest son, Esau. Aware of Isaac’s intention, Rebecca convinces Jacob to cheat his father by pretending to be Esau. Thus Jacob receives the blessing of his ancestors, a blessing that was due to him by prophecy but was, in fact, received by deceit.
For this deceit, HaShem pays Jacob—and his descendants—measure for measure (midah keneged midah): Jacob goes into exile for fear that Esau, his brother, will kill him. Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, cheats him by first giving him Leah as a bride instead of his beloved Rachel. Later Jacob’s ten sons would cheat him by lying about selling their brother, Joseph, as a slave. When Joseph, the sold slave, becomes their master, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will kill them for their betrayal.
After twenty years of difficulties with his father-in-law, Jacob returns to the Land of Israel to make peace with Esau. He sets up his family in a camp and crosses back over the river Yabok alone. Jacob is attacked by and forced to wrestle with an angel whom, our sages say, was Esau’s minister and, by extension, representative of the forces of evil. Jacob and the angel wrestle all night. The angel injures Jacob, causing him to limp, but Jacob prevails in the struggle. In the morning, the angel asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob replies: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The angel blesses him by stating that his name will no longer be “Jacob” (the name of deception), but “Israel” (the name of struggle and mastery). This blessing is then repeated and confirmed by HaShem.
A great spiritual principle is revealed here: What was due to Jacob by prophecy, he had to earn by his own action. That which is our right cannot be taken for granted as uniquely ours but must be gained by the labor of our deeds, speech, and thoughts. That which is our blessing is “potential,” praying to be made “actual” by our practice.
The Ari z”l says in Etz Chayim 31 that Jacob and Israel are two aspects of the same person, relating to different spiritual rungs. Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah, to signify these levels. The different unions between Jacob/Israel and Rachel and Leah, beginning at the bottom with Jacob and Rachel and ending at the top with Israel and Leah, represent the ascending levels of redemption and repair (the tikkun) of existence.
Jacob’s struggle to become Israel is the struggle of all Jews: how to escape the deceit of this world (ha’olam ha’zeh) and continuously ascend to the consciousness of the world of truth. Jacob is the ancestor representing the sephira of Tiferet, which stands for the pronounced name of HaShem (YKVK) and the quality of truth.
On his deathbed, our Aggadah says (Pesakhim 65a), Jacob was worried that some of his sons might have gone astray (the way of his father’s and grandfather’s children). Sensing Jacob’s anxiety, all of his children unanimously declare: “Shema Israel (Listen, O Israel), HaShem is our God, HaShem is One.” There is only One in your heart, so there is only One in our hearts. Israel responds quietly: “Blessed be the name of his His glorious kingdom forever and ever.”
This is our legacy, the legacy of the children of Israel (B’nai Israel). May HaShem bless us that our lives (as Jacob) be an ongoing struggle (as Israel) for the deeper and deeper knowing of the truth of existence. May HaShem fulfill the promise in the song of his praises (Psalm 14:7): “Oh that out of Zion would come the salvation of Israel. When G-d restores the captivity of His people, Jacob will exult, Israel will rejoice.”