In our סדרה, Yosef’s story reaches its climax with his revealing of his true identity to his brothers. The Egyptian viceroy then sends a delegation, many wagons and donkeys bearing the riches of Egypt, to bring his father down to the African country. When faced with the truth, that Yosef is alive and ruling over Egypt, Yaakov is understandably shocked, and then surprise turns to happiness, as the פסוק says: “וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם- and the spirit of Yaakov [returned to] life” (בראשית מה:כז).
Our patriach then resolves to go down to Egypt, to see his long-lost son, so naturally:
וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָּׁבַע
And Yisrael travelled with all of his belongings, and he arrived in Be’er Sheva. (שם מו:א)
What?! Yaakov had just been told that his long-lost favored son was still alive after believing him dead for several years, so he picks up his things and travels to… Be’er Sheva. Why would Yaakov travel there after declaring that he wanted to see Yosef “בטרם אמות,” before his death?
Radak answers by using the well-known theory of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, also explaining why Yaakov arrived there and brought offerings to “אלקי אביו יצחק”:
… לפי שיצחק אביו היה רצונו לרדת מצרים מפני הרעב ואמר לו האל אל תרד מצרימה; וזבח זבחים בבאר שבע שהוא בקצה ארץ כנען, וקודם שיצא מן הארץ רצה לדעת רצון האל אם ימנענו כאשר מנע אביו יצחק או לא, וזבח זבחים כדי שתבא אליו רוח נבואה
… Because [Yaakov’s] father Yitzchak wanted to go down to Egypt when faced with a famine, and G-d told him; do not go down to Egypt. Yaakov went to bring offerings when he was in Be’er Sheva, on the edge of the Land of Canaan, and before he left the land, to find out if G-d would also discourage him as He had to Yitzchak or not, so he brought offerings so that a prophetic energy would come to him. (רד”ק שם)
Rav Kimchi answers, in a nutshell, that Yaakov remembered that his father Yitzchak had been faced with a famine too- and G-d had confronted him in Be’er Sheva and told him not to leave the land. Yaakov was conflicted- he desperately wanted to see his son Yosef, and wanted to escape the famine. But, he had been promised the Land of Canaan, and had worked so hard to make it back from his exile to Haran- he was not ready to leave again so easily, especially if his father had been stopped from leaving due to famine. So, before heading to Egypt, Yaakov stopped in Be’er Sheva, where G-d interceded in Yitzchak’s attempt to leave the Land of Israel, and reached out to Hashem to ask for guidance.
G-d appears to Yaakov in a dream and answers:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאֹת הַלַּיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי הָאֵ-ל אֱלֹקי אָבִיךָ אַל־תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם.
Elokim said to Yisrael in a night vision: Yaakov, Yaakov. And he said: Here I am. And He said: I am El, the G-d of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I shall make you a great nation there. (מו:ב-ג)
Ramban makes a very interesting observation on the names that G-d uses to address Yaakov:
ויאמר יעקב יעקב – אחר שאמר לו השם לא יקרא שמך עוד יעקב כי אם ישראל יהיה שמך, היה ראוי שיקראנו בשם הנכבד ההוא. וכן הוא נזכר בפרשה הזאת שלשה פעמים, אבל קראו יעקב לרמוז כי עתה לא ישור עם אלהים ועם אנשים ויוכל, אבל יהיה בבית עבדים עד שיעלנו גם עלה, כי מעתה הגלות תתחיל בו. וזה טעם ואלה שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה יעקב ובניו (פסוק ח), כי בשם בני ישראל יבאו שמה, כי יפרו הבנים וירבו ויגדל שמם וכבודם, אבל יעקב הוא עתה ברדתו שם.
And he said: Yaakov, Yaakov– after Hashem had said “your name will no longer be called Yaakov, rather Yisrael will be your name,” it would be appropriate for G-d to call him by this honored name (Yisrael), as he is called several times in this section. Rather, He called him Yaakov here to hint to the fact that now, he should not “fight with man and G-d and win,” but rather he will be in servitude until G-d returns him, for the exile will begin now… (רמב”ן שם)
Nachmanides asks an intriguing question: G-d had personally given Yaakov a new name, Yisrael, one which is used several times in this sedra and even this parsha. Why here would G-d address our patriarch by his “old name” Yaakov? He answers that G-d is symbolically telling Yaakov that when he goes down into Egypt, he will have to submit to slavery, symbolizing not the Yisrael who could stand up for himself, but rather the timid Yaakov. Yaakov’s descendants would have to remain in this mindset as well, until the time that they to be returned home to Canaan, at which time they will stand up and fight back, and will truly merit the name “children of Israel.”
But, even as G-d gives Yaakov this slightly depressing forecast, there is a glimmer of hope. G-d promises that He personally will go down with Yaakov to Egypt and watch over his descendants in exile, and, when the time is right, he will personally bring them back and make them a great nation. They may enter Egypt as the children of Yaakov, but Hashem reassured Yaakov that they will return to Canaan as the nation of Israel.
Yaakov, reassured by G-d’s message and promises, leaves Canaan with sixty nine others, and finally reunites with Yosef after so much time apart, before settling into Goshen and beginning the exile of hundreds of years in Egypt.
We too, in our times, are suffering in exile. Ever since the destruction of בית שני, the Jewish People have been living in exile, forced to be בני יעקב, reacting passively to being subjugated and pushed around by our enemies. For two thousand years, we’ve had no recourse but to allow ourselves to be suppressed and attacked, going between the different lands of the world on the whims of our conquerors.
But, 67.5 years ago, our subjugation came to an end. For the first time since the destruction of the Temple in the first century CE, G-d granted us safe haven and a chance to fight back by giving us the Land of Israel. Israel represents far more than a Jewish state- it literally gives us the opportunity to return to being Yisrael, giving us autonomy and a means to fight back against our enemies and stop the attacks against our people. It has allowed us to re-embrace the trait of “שרית עם אלקים ועם אנשים ותוכל,” one that Hashem warned Yaakov he’d have to stop using before going down to Egypt, and one which the Jewish People haven’t been able to properly wield since the war and victory of the חשמונאים in the time of Chanukah- we’ve finally regained the right to determine our own fate instead of timidly following others.
But, Israel also represents a more personal aspect of each and every Jew. When thinking about one’s purpose in life, and contemplating where they would like to live, a Jew in our time can either choose to be Yaakov, settling to suffer in the bitter life of the exile, or decide to become Yisrael, and make the difficult decision to move home to Israel, even if the relocation may be as trying as a battle. Our third forefather, on G-d’s advice, was forced to become the former, and accept the fact that he would have to spend the rest of his life subjugated in the exile. In our times, when we have a choice of whether to be Yaakov or Yisrael, how could we not take advantage of an opportunity to embrace our inner Yisrael and move to where Yaakov wished he could live out the rest of his life?