In this week’s Torah reading, the Patriarch Jacob (Yaakov) is given a second name Yisrael, Israel. Indeed, when speaking collectively about our people and our land, this name is used more consistently and prominently.

Judaism, particularly in the light of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah, puts much emphasis on names. In that vein, the two names used to refer to Jacob highlight different elements of our Divine service. The letters of the name Yaakov, Hebrew for Jacob, can be broken into the phrase י עקב. The letter י refers to the fundamental G‑dly spark that exists within each of us. עקב, ekev, is the Hebrew for heel, a limb which our Sages describe as “the angel of death within a human being.” For the callused heel is insensitive. It lacks the ability to feel stimuli from the outside and respond to it.

The name Yaakov, Jacob, refers to a Jew — and our people collectively — on the level of a heel, i.e., when our ability to appreciate and respond to spirituality is hamstrung. Even then, one must realize that the first letter of our name is a yud, i.e., G‑dliness is what dominates and directs our lives.

The significance of this name is underscored by the situations in which it is mentioned in the Bible. Firstly, it was given because Jacob was holding on to the heel of Esau. In other words, it refers to a situation where a Jew is outwardly lower than he should be, because of the gentile environment in which he is found. Certainly, he possesses an inner spiritual advantage. For that reason, as the commentaries explain, he was holding Esau back. He knew that he deserved prominence. Yet, although Jacob knew that; others did not. Outwardly, he appeared on a lower level.

Thus, in a larger sense, the name Jacob refers to the Jews as they are in exile. Yes, their spiritual potential remains intact, but outwardly, they must grapple with their environment, which places them at a spiritual disadvantage.

That leads to the second explanation the Torah gives for the name Yaakov. Esau says: “He is called Yaakov, because he tricked me (yakvani).” Jacob can’t be up-front all the time; the stresses and tribulations of exile sometimes cause him to act in secrecy.

This does not mean cheating. Quite the contrary, as seen by his conduct in the house of Laban, Jacob is a paradigm of ethics and integrity. But sometimes, like the secret Jews in Spain who hid their Judaism or the underground classrooms in Communist Russia, a somewhat dual lifestyle is necessary.

And the situation does not have to be so extreme. When a Jew involves himself fully in American life six days a week, but on Shabbos, heshuts off his phone and closets himself from the mundane world, he is presenting two faces, one for the world at large and one, for himself.

Yisrael (ישראל), Israel, Jacob’s second name, communicates a different message. That name can be broken up into the words ישר א-ל, “direct to G‑d.” On the level of Israel, a Jew — and the Jewish people as a whole — need no subterfuge. Their Jewish identity shines powerfully at all times and in all situations. As the Torah states, that name was given when “you strove with men and angels and you prevailed.”

Looking to the Horizon

When will the Jews’ identity as Israel be revealed in a full sense? In the era of Mashiach.

There is also an allusion to this in our Torah reading. At the conclusion of his encounter with Esau, Jacob promises to visit him in his home on Mt. Seir. Our Sages note that he never kept that promise in his lifetime. Instead, it refers to the Ultimate Future, when “Saviors will ascend Mt. Zion and judge the mountain of Esau and sovereignty will be G‑d’s.”

In the present era, as in the Torah reading, Jacob bows to Esau and calls him “my master.” But in the Ultimate Future the quality of Israel will be revealed and the supremacy of the G‑dly nature the Jews possess will come to the surface.

We can experience a foretaste of this at present. Gone are the times when we must adopt a galus mentality, humbling ourselves in exile. We can stand proudly as Jews, living according to the Torah’s standards without any embarrassment or the need to conceal our Judaism.