Of Fate and Faith

The less dramatic, though equally compelling renaming of Jacob to Israel by God in this week’s portion of Vayishlach raises quite a few questions. After experiencing fraught escapades, individually and as a family, God appears to Jacob and declares 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.

The repetitive wording is awkward, but more striking is the fact that the name change itself, as we know, has already occurred, so why repeat it at all? This is of course a more familiar way of changing a name as we have seen from Abraham and Sarah and unquestionably would have been the preferred method by Jacob himself. So what was the purpose of the fight? Why in this pronouncement is there no reference to the significance of the name change as there was with the mysterious person/angel who declares 32:29;

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃

He declared, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human,-and have prevailed.”

I think the two accounts attest to the dual aspects of our identity as the children or people of Israel. – Two dimensions of Jewish Peoplehood. We are a people of fate, and of faith. Rabbi Soloveitchik in his seminal address-turned-essay on Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofek ”- Listen- My Beloved Knocks, called these, respectively, brit goral the covenant of fate and brit ye’ud the covenant of destiny. Fate is what happens to us. Destiny is what we do. Whilst Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies these with the experiences of Egypt -fate and Sinai – destiny, this seminal story of Jacob transformed to Israel, preempts and perhaps predicts these fundamental qualities. As a people, we are bound by history, but equally crucial by the tenacity of our faith. Our fate, as the angel demonstrated is one of struggle, often a lone fighter, our destiny however goes way beyond these confines. Yisrael also invokes Yosher, integrity, doing the right thing, expressed by Moshe’s call in Devarim 6:18;

…וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר וְהַטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה

(Choose to) Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD. 

We succumb to fate, symbolized through the struggle with the angel, and are summoned by God to go beyond, implied by the repeated use of the word Yikare, called… a term not used by the angel. We are summoned to be Yisrael by God  rather than submitting to the name change at the climax of the fight.   

These fundamental experiences could also provide renewed understanding and actualizations of the pursuit of Tikkun (l’)Olam, to Re-Pair these two fundamental dispositions for good!

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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