By Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
A Name for Every Occasion
An attentive reader of this week’s parsha will notice something quite striking while reading its very first two verses: The first verse refers to Jacob by the name of Jacob, whereas the verse immediately following it refers to him as Israel. Unlike Abraham, whose name never reverts to Avram, Jacob gains the name of Israel only to have it applied to him with seeming inconsistency. This is especially puzzling in that Jacob’s renaming comes along with a prohibition that his name no longer be called Jacob but rather Israel:
“שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב לֹא-יִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב כִּי אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ”
Nevertheless, in that passage too the text almost immediately goes back to calling him Jacob!
The Malbim provides an answer to this problem by making an observation that is both brilliant and almost too obvious. He states that the words “שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב” (“Your name is Jacob”) which precede Jacob’s name change are an assertion that, despite the new name of Israel, the name of Jacob is to remain a relevant name for Jacob on some level. In this interpretation, the Malbim is in fact following the lead of the Or Ha-Chayim, who treats this subject with great interest and in fascinating detail. The Or Ha-Chayim states that Abraham’s name never reverted to Avram because the identity and name of Avram were subsumed within the new name of Abraham. However, unlike Abraham’s name, Jacob’s new name of Israel was one almost too lofty to have on a full-time basis. When Jacob is at his best, he re-achieves the status of his name Israel. When he is compromised by the misbehavior of his children or by the sadness of loss, he reverts to being Jacob. For example: when Jacob is finally united with Joseph, he called Israel (46:29), but when he is burying Rachel, he is Jacob (Gen 35:20).
During Jacob’s stay in Egypt, far away from the Holy Land, he remains Jacob. For this reason, the parsha starts, “And Jacob dwelt in the Land of Egypt for seventeen years” (Gen 47:28). However, as Jacob starts readying himself for the end of his life, taking charge of his affairs and getting ready to bless and instruct his children, he becomes Israel again, particularly as he instructs Joseph to bury him in the Land of Israel (Gen 47:29).
Although there are many things we can learn from the Or Ha-Chayim’s analysis, one detail we can focus on is the fact that Jacob was able to reclaim the name of Israel in Egypt, even if briefly. That is to say, he was able to be at his best, a shining example of holiness and ethical propriety, even in a foreign land inhospitable to monotheism and Torah values. Certainly we can look to the accomplishments of our ancestor Israel for encouragement and inspiration when we feel we are in a place inhospitable to spirituality or inimical to ethical behavior.