In this week’s Sidra Jacob, after his struggle with the angel, is told that his name is now to be Israel. And yet we find him still referred to, on subsequent occasions in the Torah, as Jacob. Yet after Abraham’s name was changed from Abram, he is never again called in the Torah by his earlier name. What is the difference between the two cases? The Rebbe explains the meaning of the names of “Jacob” and “Israel,” of the two stages in the religious life that they represent, and of their relevance to us today.

1. Why Jacob Remains

Concerning the verse, “And your name shall no longer be Jacob: Instead Israel shall be your name,”1 the Talmud2 poses the following problem: Anyone who calls Abraham, Abram transgresses the command, “And your name shall no longer be called Abram.”3 If so, surely the same applies to one who uses the name Jacob to refer to Israel, for it is written, “‘And your name shall no longer be Jacob?” The Talmud concludes that the name Jacob is different from the name Abram in this respect, that after G‑d gave Abraham his new name, the Torah never thereafter refers to him by any name other than Abraham. Whereas Jacob is so called in the Torah even after he has been given the name of Israel.

Why does the name Jacob remain?

There is a Chassidic explanation4 that the names “Jacob” and “Israel” denote two stages in the service of G‑d, both necessary at different times in the religious life of every Jew. “Israel” denotes a higher achievement, but it does not supplant or remove the necessity for the service signified by “Jacob.”

2. The Inner Meaning of “Jacob” and “Israel”

The difference between them is this. The name “Jacob” implies that he acquired the blessings of Isaac “by supplanting and subtlety”5 (the name in Hebrew, Ya-akov, means he supplanted”). He used cunning to take the blessings which had been intended for Esau. “Israel,” on the other hand, denotes the receiving of blessings through “noble conduct (Serarah, which is linguistically related to Yisrael, the Hebrew form of Israel), and in an open manner.”6

However the Torah is interpreted, its literal meaning remains true. And the blessings of Isaac referred to the physical world and its benefits: “G‑d give you of the dew of the heaven and the fatness of the earth.”7 Jacob and Rebecca made great sacrifices and resorted to deceit to acquire them. Jacob had to dress himself in the clothes of Nimrod,8 whose kingdom turned the whole world to rebellion,9 in order to take and transform the elements of the physical world to holiness (to release their “buried sparks of holiness”).

The deeds of the Fathers are a sign to their children.10 And the implication for us of Jacob’s act is that we have to use cunning in our approach to the acts of our physical nature. The cunning man does not reveal his intentions. He seems to be following the path of his opponent. But at the crucial point he does what he had all along intended. The Jew in his involvement with the material world appears to be preoccupied with it. He eats, drinks, transacts business. But he does so for the sake of heaven. His objectives are not material ones. He wears the “clothes of Esau,” but his implicit purpose is to uncover and elevate the “holy sparks.”

But the way of “Israel” is to attain the blessings of “the dew of the heaven and the fatness of the earth” by “noble and open conduct.” In worldly conduct he has no need to conceal his intention of serving G‑d. He experiences no tensions. The world has no hold on him. It does not hide from him its intrinsic G‑dliness.

This distinction can be seen in the difference between a Shabbat and a weekday meal. Eating a weekday meal embodies the tension between a physical act and its spiritual motivation for the sake of heaven. This discrepancy between outward appearance and inner intention is a form of cunning. But eating a Shabbat meal in itself fulfills a commandment. The holiness of the physical is manifest.

In the light of this we can understand the meaning of the verse, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have contended with G‑d (Elokim) and with men and you have prevailed.”11Elokim” in this context means “angels,”12 and generally connotes the “seventy heavenly princes” through whom flow the Divine emanations which sustain physical existence, and who thereby act to conceal G‑dliness.13 “Men” signifies a still greater concealment, for men are capable of denigrating the Jew for performing G‑d’s will, and this is a harder concealment to bear. For this reason, the first paragraph of the entire Shulchan Aruch warns us “not to be ashamed of men who ridicule.” And this is the basis of the whole of a Jew’s service—to break down the concealment of G‑d.

This was the virtue of Israel, to have “contended with Elokim and with men” and to have prevailed over their respective concealments of G‑d. They are no longer barriers to him; indeed they assent to his blessings. He not only won his struggle with the angel (the guardian angel of Esau) but the angel himself blessed him. This is the achievement of which the Proverbs speak: “He makes even his enemies be at peace with him.”14

3. The Struggle

This distinction accords with the explanation given in Likkutei Torah15 of the verse, “He has not seen sin in Jacob nor toil in Israel.”16 At the level of “Jacob” the Jew has no sin, but he still experiences “toil”—his freedom from sin is achieved only by tension and struggle for he has concealments to overcome. This is why he is called “Jacob, my servant”17 for “service” (in Hebrew, avodah) has the implication of strenuous effort to refine his physical nature (his “animal soul”). He does not sin but he still experiences the inclination to sin, which he must overcome. But “Israel” encounters no “toil,” for in his struggle “with Elokim and with men” he broke down the factors which conceal G‑dliness and silenced his dissenting inclinations. Israel no longer needs to contend with those forces which oppose the perception of G‑dliness. His progress lies entirely within the domain of the holy.

4. Partial and Complete Victory

There is a story told by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, about the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Rebbe): Once in the middle of a Chassidic gathering the Tzemach Tzedek jumped onto a table in great excitement and said: “What is the difference between something which is killed completely and something which is only partially killed? (This refers to a statement in the Talmud:18 that to have ‘partially’ killed something is to have killed it.) The Tzemach Tzedek giving the halachic point a Chassidic meaning, applies it to the ‘killing’ of the inclination to sin. Even a ‘partial’ killing is a killing, but at the very least we must partially kill it.” After some time had passed in speaking and dancing, he continued: “At the moment that one has reached the point of ‘killing’ (the moment of which the Psalms19 speak in the words, ‘My heart is void within me’) one’s life has taken on a new character.”

These two statements of the Tzemach Tzedek refer to the two levels of “Jacob” and “Israel.” At the level of “Jacob” there is still a struggle against one’s inclinations, a life of tension—a partial killing. But at the level of “Israel” when the killing is “complete,” life is transformed into a new serenity and spiritual pleasure.

5.Levels in the Life of the Tzaddik and the Benoni

These two stages of service pertain to two levels within the “G‑dly soul.” “Jacob” can be analyzed into the letter Yud and the word ekev (the heel). Here the perception of G‑d (symbolized by the letter “Yud”) has reached only the lowest levels of the soul, creating the possibility of a concealment which has to be broken down. On the other hand “Israel” contains the same letters as “Li Rosh” (“The head is mine”). The whole soul, to its highest capacities, has been permeated by the awareness of G‑d, and no concealment is possible, no struggle necessary.

In general terms, “Israel” denotes the Tzaddik (the stage of complete righteousness) and “Jacob” the Benoni (the intermediate level, attainable by every man20). And in particular, within this intermediate level, that “Jacob” represents the weekday service, and “Israel” the service of Shabbat. Even within the stage of complete righteousness, there are still analogues of both “Jacob” and “Israel.” This is clear from the fact that Israel himself was still occasionally called Jacob after his change of name. Within him, and indeed in every Jew, “Jacob” remains as a necessary element in the service of G‑d.

6. The Contemporary Meaning of “Jacob”

From the fact that, as we mentioned before, the level of Jacob is without sin, and yet involves continual effort, it follows that the Jew—though his struggle with contending desires is difficult and fraught with risk—has the power to achieve victory and remain free from sin. For he is “a branch of My planting, the work of My hands,”21 and “a part of G‑d above.”22 As nothing can prevail over G‑d, so can nothing prevail over the Jew against his will. And he has been promised victory, for we are told, “His banished will not be rejected by Him”23 and “All Israel has a share in the world to come.”24

This promise (like all the words of Torah) is relevant to our present spiritual concerns. The assurance of ultimate victory should strengthen our joy in the act of service, and this joy will itself contribute to the victory over our physical natures, and shorten the battle. The previous Rebbe said:25 though a soldier confronts danger, he goes with a song of joy, and the joy brings him victory.

This is why we say, after the end of Shabbat, “Do not fear, My servant Jacob.” For, as we explained above, during Shabbat the Jew stands at the level of Israel; beyond the Shabbat, when we return to the level of “Jacob, My servant,” and to the toil of the weekday service, we are told, “Do not fear.” This is not merely a command but also a source of strength and of the joy that will shorten the work and hasten its reward—to the point where we are worthy of the time which is “an eternal life of Shabbat and rest.”

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 795-9)