Frederick L. Klein

Jacob: In Search of a Name  

Each of us has a name,
given to us by God,
and given to us by our father
and mother.

Each of us has a name,
given to us by our sins,
and given to us by our longings. 

– ‘Each of Us Have a Name’, Zelda  (from Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited and translated by T. Carmi)

Recently I had the honor of naming my new grandson, Eitan Yitzchak.  To name a person is not a superficial thing. Through our name we become known in the world. We not only are known through this name, but in reality, we know ourselves by this same name.  Spiritually, each name has a certain energy brought from the world above.  For this reason, when one becomes gravely ill, it is customary to change the name.  Shunui shem, shinui mazal.  If a name is changed, perhaps their fate will be as well.

In Genesis, Abraham himself has a name change, indicating a new destiny for himself and his progeny.  The timing of the name change is logical, as it occurs at the moment God commands him to circumcise himself, an ‘entry covenant’ for males to become part of the Jewish people.    Similarly, when a person converts to Judaism, they are given a new name as well, as that name indicates their unique identity within the Jewish people.  The Talmud states:

Also, with regard to Abraham’s name, bar Kappara taught: Anyone who calls Abraham ‘Abram’ transgresses a positive mitzvah, as it is stated: “And your name will be Abraham” (Genesis 17:5). This is a positive mitzvah to refer to him as Abraham. Rabbi Eliezer says: One who calls Abraham ‘Abram’ transgresses a negative mitzvah, as it is stated: “And your name shall no longer be called Abram, and your name will be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5).  (Berakhot 13a, with interpolations from Davidson edition.)

Abraham and Abram are two people, two distinct personalities.  The midrash states that the initial name, Abram, was a conjunction of Av Aram, a prince to the people of Aram, his native country.  Upon covenanting himself to God, he now is av hamon goyim, the father of many nations.  If early in his life he was a local leader and prince, he now is an international prince in the ancient world, and in later history is associated with becoming the founder of not only Judaism, but the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam.  To invoke the earlier name is seen as an act of great disrespect and betrayal; it denies one’s internal transformation and denies who they are.  As a parallel, it is absolutely forbidden to shame someone who has repented, reminding them of their previous lapses.  To do so is to deny their humanity, as well as the human capacity for change.

In our week’s parashah, Jacob is renamed Israel not once but twice.  First, he is renamed in his battle with the mysterious stranger (or angel) the night before he encounters his brother Esau.  In the heat of the struggle, Jacob will not let the angel go until he blesses him.  The angel exclaims, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel (Yisrael), for you have striven (sarita), with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”  Later, Jacob will come to Beit El, and God –not an angel- will name him Israel again.  If the transformation from Abram to Abraham is simply an expansion of the original identity of Abraham, the renaming of Jacob seems to be an absolute transformation.   Rashi points out the relatively negative connotation of the name Jacob, Yaakov.  The name derives from the fact that he is holding on to the heal (ekev) of his brother and usurps the birthright through deceit and subterfuge.  The new name indicates mastery and overcoming great forces, a very complimentary name indeed!

Yet, astonishingly, even after the dramatic name transformation, the Torah continues to use both names, often interchangeably. Many explanations have been given over the centuries.  For Nachaminides, the name Israel represents the elevated name used in the land of Israel, while the name Jacob is the name invoked in times of exile and trouble.  The Seforno argues that the ultimate name is Israel in the messianic age, but as long as Israel is oppressed at the hands of other nations the lower ‘historical name is used.’  Whatever the explanation, if there is one, ultimately throughout Jacob’s life and thereafter, he is someone who appears to carry two names.  One name does not supplant the other.   In fact, it is not even clear which name is the primary name (see for example Bereishit Rabbah 46:5).  The question is, why?

I believe the key to this question might be dependent upon answering the question of who precisely names Jacob.  Is he named by the angel after a struggle, with God later formalizing it, or was the angel simply informing Jacob of the future name which would be conferred upon him?  In truth, I believe there is a third option, and option that provides deep psychological insight into Jacob himself. Jacob claims the name for himself.

While I have not seen this explanation in the classic commentaries, consider the Biblical text.  Jacob is struggling with an angel, and he demands that the angel bless him, not rename him.  In fact, in the later narrative God blesses him that he will be a great nation and that he will inherit the land. In the angel narrative there is no blessing at all – at least in any conventional sense.  Given this, perhaps we can reread our narrative. The angel asks him what his name is.  He replies, ‘Jacob’.  The angel’s response is that people will not be calling him Jacob anymore but Israel, because he is one who is strong and overcomes great struggles.  The play on his name can be seen as the blessing itself!  The blessing is that while before when people saw him, they saw a usurper on the run, a Jacob/ Yaakov,  when they see him now they will see how far he has come, that he has even defeated angels and Gods.  The people will exclaim of their own volition ‘Israel’.[1]  He will be a model of strength.  Jacob himself becomes amazed by his own strength, a strength he heretofore did not know he had. He exclaims “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (32:31), and names the place peniel- facing a god.

Following his encounter with Esau, Jacob moves to Shechem, acquires a plot of land, and builds an altar.  While it is unclear what the name of the altar is from the text, it is clear that the altar is in honor of “God, the God of Israel”.  This happens before God names him Israel.  This might indicate that Jacob liked the blessing he received from the angel, and actually adapted the name for himself.  Later God agrees to that name that Jacob had already invoked.

What might motivate Jacob to adopt this name for himself?  More than any other patriarch, Jacob is the most human.  He struggles and suffers.  He acts in ways that at times are even morally questionable.  Jacob wants to be a hero and live up to the expectations of Abraham and Isaac, and yet he struggles with feelings of insufficiency and doubt.  Jacob adopts this name not because of who he is all the time, but who he wants to be.  He wants to live up to the blessing he just was given by the angel.  Given this, the name Israel is an aspirational name that he gives himself.  He wants to be someone resourceful, resilient, and powerful, with the ability to overcome all of life’s challenges.  There will be times, like when he blesses his children at the end of his life, that he will be an Israel.  There will be other times, like the decades morning for his lost son Joseph, that he will give up in despair.  He will lapse back, becoming Jacob again.

Jacob/Israel becomes the father of the Jewish people, and we too are called both children of Israel and the children of Jacob, bnei Yisrael and bnei Yaakov.  Just as Jacob, we too are dynamic creatures, struggling to overcome the demons within us and become all we can be.  In the words of poet Zelda (1914-1984), we want our name not only to be the name given by our father and mother, or even by God.  We want to be known by the name given to us by our longing.  This aspirational vision was critical then, and it is critical now.

Shabbat shalom

[1] A similar idea is with Joseph when he becomes the vizier of Egypt.  Pharaoh gives him an Egyptian name, but the people call him Avrech, our father.  That is not his name, but what other’s call him.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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