"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."
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
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
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: "There
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