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Double Identity

Double Identity


"No longer shall your name be called Jacob; rather, Israel shall be your name. For you have struggled with the divine and with men, and you have prevailed" (Genesis 32:29).

So said the angel with whom Jacob wrestled for a night prior to his historic encounter with Esau. Later, we read that G‑d Himself appeared to Jacob and reiterated the change of his name to Israel.

Abraham, too, had his name changed (from Abram) by G‑d. But with Abraham, the change was absolute; the Talmud goes so far as to say, "Whoever calls Abraham 'Abram' violates a prohibition of the Torah, as it is written, 'No longer shall your name be called Abram.'" Jacob, too, was told, "No longer shall your name be called Jacob," yet the Torah continues to call him by both names, often alternating between Jacob and Israel in a single narrative, or even a single verse. The Jewish people, who carry the name of their exclusive ancestor, are also called both "Jacob" and "Israel."

Abraham's name change, which came about when he circumcised himself by command of G‑d, marked his elevation from Abram ("exalted father") to Abraham ("exalted father of the multitudes"). The name Abraham includes all the letters, and meaning, of Abram; the change was the introduction of an additional letter (the letter hei) and role. Thus, to call Abraham "Abram" is to reduce him to his prior self and significance.

On the other hand, Jacob and Israel are two different names, with two different meanings. While it is true that Israel represents a loftier state of being than Jacob (thus the Israel element in Jacob is "no longer Jacob"), there are certain virtues to the Jacob state that the Israel state cannot possess. So Jacob remains a name for both the third Patriarch and for the Jewish people as a whole. Israel might represent a higher stage in the Jew's development than Jacob, but the greatness of the Jewish people lies in that there are both Jacob Jews and Israel Jews, and Jacob and Israel elements within each individual Jew.

The Spiritual Warrior

One insight into the difference between the Jacob and Israel personalities is offered by Balaam, the pagan prophet who was summoned to curse the Jewish people and ended up mouthing one of the most beautiful odes to Jewish life and destiny contained in the Torah.

In the second of Balaam's curses-turned-blessings, there is a verse in which he proclaims: "[G‑d] sees no guilt in Jacob, nor toil in Israel."1

This implies that Jacob does experience toil, though his struggles and difficulties do not result in his guilt in the eyes of G‑d. Israel, on the other hand, enjoys a tranquil existence, devoid not only of guilt but also of toil.

The Torah gives us two interpretations of the name Jacob. Jacob was born grasping the heel of his elder twin, Esau; thus he was named "Jacob" (Yaakov, in the Hebrew), which means "at the heel." Years later, when Jacob disguised himself as Esau to receive the blessings that Isaac intended to give the elder brother, Esau proclaimed: "No wonder he is called Jacob ("cunning")! Twice he has deceived me: he has taken my birthright, and now he has taken my blessings."

Jacob is the Jew still in the thick of the battle of life. A battle in which he is often "at the heel"--dealing with the lowliest aspects of his own personality and of his environment. A battle which he must wage with furtiveness and stealth, for he is in enemy territory and must disguise his true intentions in order to outmaneuver those who attempt to ensnare him. Threatened by a hostile world, plagued by his own shortcomings and negative inclinations, the Jacob Jew has yet to transcend the axiomatic condition of his humanity—the fact that "man is born to toil" and that human life is an obstacle course of challenges to one's integrity.

G‑d sees no guilt in Jacob, for despite all that Jacob must face, he has been granted the capacity to meet his every detractor. Even if he momentarily succumbs to some internal or external challenge, he never loses his intrinsic goodness and purity, which ultimately asserts itself, no matter how much it has been repressed by the travails of life. But while he might be free of sin, he is never free of toil, of the struggle to maintain his sinless state. For Jacob, the war of life rages ever on, regardless of how many of its battles he has won.

Israel ("divine master"), on the other hand, is the name given to Jacob when he "has struggled with the divine and with men, and has prevailed." Israel is the Jew who has prevailed over his own humanity, so completely internalizing the intrinsic perfection of his soul that he is now immune to all challenges and temptations; who has prevailed over the divine decree that "man is born to toil," carving out for himself a tranquil existence amidst the turbulence of life.

Thus, "Jacob" is the name reserved for us when we are referred to as G‑d's "servants," while "Israel" is G‑d's name of choice when He speaks of us as His "children." The defining element of the servant's life is his service to his master. The child, too, serves his father, but their relationship is such that his service is not toil but pleasure. What for the servant is work, imposed upon a resisting self and environment, is for the child the harmonious realization of his identity as the extension of his father's essence.

The first part of Jacob's life was consumed by his struggles with his brother Esau—a struggle which began in the womb, continued through their contest over the bechorah (firstborn's birthright) and their father's blessings, and culminated in Jacob's all-night battle with the angel of Esau and the brothers' face-to-face encounter the next day. In the interim, Jacob also spent twenty toil-filled years tending the sheep of Laban "the Deceiver"--years during which "heat consumed me by day and frost at night, and sleep was banished from my eyes," and he was forced to become Laban's "brother in deception." Jacob's name-change to Israel marked the point at which he graduated from a servant of G‑d to G‑d's child, from an existence defined by struggle and strife to a harmonious realization of his relationship with G‑d.

Sweet and Sour

Yet even after he was named Israel, Jacob continued to be Jacob as well. The Torah continues to use his old name along with the new. The events of his life now include periods of tranquility (such as the nine years from his return to the Holy Land from Charan until the sale of Joseph, and the seventeen years he lived in Egypt), but also periods of strife (i.e., the 22 years he mourned his beloved Joseph).

As the father of the people of Israel, Jacob was the model for both states of the Jew: the tranquil child of G‑d, at peace with himself, his G‑d and his society, whose harmonious life is a beacon of light and enlightenment to his surroundings; and the embattled servant of G‑d, grappling with his self and character, his relationship with G‑d and his place in the world. For the Jacob state is not merely a prerequisite stage toward the attainment of the Israel state, but an end in itself, an indispensable role in the Creator's blueprint for life on earth.

In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: "There2 are two types of pleasure before G‑d. The first is from the complete abnegation of evil and its transformation from bitterness to sweetness and from darkness to light by the tzaddikim. The second [pleasure] is when evil is repelled while it is still at its strongest and mightiest... through the initiative of the beinonim... The analogy for this is physical food, in which there are two types of delicacies that give pleasure: the first being the pleasure derived from sweet and pleasant foods; and the second, from sharp and sour foods, which are spiced and prepared in such a way that they become delicacies that revive the soul."3

Tanya, chapter 27.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shevat 10, 5718 (January 31, 1958)
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Tovah Jerusalem November 6, 2015

Thank you Mr Zalmanov! Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for October 18, 2015

Re: Men and women? Every part of the Torah can be explained in many ways and on various levels. Rashi's explanation is regarding one issue, and the Rebbe's is regarding another. Reply

Tovah Jerusalem October 1, 2015

Men and women? Dear author,

Thank you very much for the well-written article.

Rashi on Exodus 19:3 tells us that "House of Jacob" refers to women, and "Children of Israel" refers to men (which is why both terms are used when describing how Moses gave over the 10 Commandments). I do not understand how his comment fits in with the Rebbe's explanation. Would you please explain it for me? Thanks and Chag sukkot sameach! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, MA July 11, 2013

we all have an Achilles heel. This sensitizes us to life and does inform our respective life stories. It is relevant Jacob's story involved Esau's heel in deepening metaphoric ways. G-d does NOT play dice with the Universe, which is the entirety of Creation including the particulars of each and every story. We are here to learn. Jacob was not exempt. Blesser means to wound in French. You might ask why because bless, our English word is contained within. I sat behind Rael, my cousin, who gave a glowing eulogy to my Uncle at The Park East Synagogue in NY so recently. My life is so visibly non random. What 'IS Real' here is a story that Will sweep the world. This story is about love. From Naomi to Ruth to a Biblical lineage so inscribed not by chance in The Book of Ruth. Reply

Isaiah Tanenbaum Brooklyn, NY December 13, 2011

Sin Manchester:

There are a number of different words that can be translated as "sin".

Avon means a transgressive act committed due to moral failing -- thus, "guilt"; often, "iniquity" -- whereas the more general term for "sin" is actually Aveira (literally, "transgression").

Avon is actually the middle level of the three possible kinds of Aveira, where deliberate disobeying (Pesha) and accidental error (Cheit) are higher and lower, respectively.

There's an excellent discussion on the varying terminology and its theological ramifications on Wikipedia under "Jewish Views on Sin" (Chabad won't let me post a link in a comment thread, but a quick google will take you there). Reply

Anonymous Manchester, UK November 18, 2010

Question for author Great article. My only question is how do you translate "Avon" to "Guilt"? I was always under the impression that it means sin. Reply

mn Broken, US via December 3, 2009

Great Insight Thank you. The artilcle gave me much to ponder and it helped me understand a little more about life and my relationship to our Creator. Reply

Daniel Pimentel San Salvador, El Salvador December 12, 2008

Finally I had never understood "Israel" as a state of being and not just a name. Doing so truly makes it all come together and thinking about the achievement of that state as our graduation, and our being able to excell in living according to Torah while successfully struggling with the pressures of this world is one very encouraging perspective for me. This one is truly a fantastic article and I've learned a lot through it. Reply

Anonymous Jacksonville, FL November 22, 2007

Amazing Your article was fantastic and adapted very well. I thought it was amzing even though I've heard many Divar Torahs like this one...Kol Hakavod Reply

Eric S. Kingston North Holllywood, CA March 16, 2007

The Struggle A very interesting article. Reply

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