The Book of Bereishit evolves and in a sense is actually created through naming. This week we are truly blessed in a crowning moment where Yaakov and we become Yisrael. The episode is enigmatic and could have been painless both textually and physically for Yaakov, had he and his adversary worn the “Hello my name is” stickers for their encounter.
After succumbing to Yaakov, the nameless man or angel bizarrely asks; 32:28 “What is your name?” He replied, “Yaakov.” Are we to believe that the angel did not know who he was fighting with? Why wait till now for the polite introductions? Furthermore why not share your name when Yaakov inquires; הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י – Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” Famously the nameless angel names the fight and the person, וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
He proclaims “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
The pronouncement, almost awkward in its length, gives equal prominence to name dropping as well as to the new character trait evoked through the new name of Yisrael. As Rashi highlights, it implies that in the past your blessings as or through Yaakov, particularly by Yitzchak, were acquired as Yaakov, through trickery (עָקְבָה) and deceit, now you earn them through שררה (serara) nobility, virtue and or Yosher, (also in the name Yisrael) integrity. This could provide a needed reinvigoration of the modern use of Sar of Sarara, – a Minister of or for Israel. Perhaps we should re-adopt these aspects of our name and identity, less wrestling, more integrity. More compelling than complicated. – This could have profound implications for “Israel” education!
Later towards the end of the parsha, recording Yaakov and his family returning to (the Land of) Israel, this whole passage becomes all the more bewildering, when God seemingly independent of the earlier declaration of the angel, announces 35:10
וַיֹּֽאמֶר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים שִׁמְךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֑ב לֹֽא־יִקָּרֵא֩ שִׁמְךָ֨ ע֜וֹד יַעֲקֹ֗ב כִּ֤י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He named him Israel.
Yes, unlike the angel, He knew his name, and there was no need to pick a fight! There is also a glaring omission of the rationale for the new name. And yet after this dramatic and again lengthy announcement Yaakov does not drop his name. In the verses following “on the heels” of this revelation we continue to encounter Yaakov rather than Yisrael.
Yaakov, cannot drop events or the name that have shaped his very character, new experiences can supplement but cannot replace his story, his very essence. To do that requires time and perspective. Only we, his ancestors are able to lose the ambivalence and strive to become Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel.