“Sons of Israel” Parashat Vayishlach 5778

Yaakov Avinu, like his grandfather Avraham Avinu, had two names. Both Avraham and Yaakov had their names changed in mid-life. Avraham began his life as Avram and Hashem changed his name to Avraham. Yaakov began his life as Yaakov and his name change takes place in two stages. The first stage happens on the eve of his meeting with his brother Esav, as he wrestles with an unknown assailant. Yaakov is victorious and the assailant rewards him by changing his name to Yisrael. A few chapters later, Hashem ratifies the name change and Yaakov officially becomes Yisrael.

Well, sort of. Avraham’s name change stuck. In fact, the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [13a] rules that a person who refers to Avraham by his old name, Avram, is performing a halachic error. On the other hand, even after Yaakov’s name change the Torah refers to him as both Yaakov and Yisrael, sometimes in the very same verse. It’s almost erratic.

I propose that the reason for this disparity pertains to the meaning of a name. Cognizant that we are dabbling in the mystical[1], a person’s name is more than what he is called. A person’s name in some way identifies his mission on earth, such that when parents name their child they are to a certain extent engaging in prophecy by revealing that mission. Avraham Avinu was born as “Avram”, a contraction of the words “Av Aram” – the father of Aram. Avraham was born in Aram, in modern-day Iraq. His innovation regarding monotheism was revolutionary and as a result he became a local superstar. Eventually, Avraham outgrew his first mission. His message had become too important to be relegated to one certain part of the world and so Hashem gave him a new mission, calling him “Avraham” [Bereishit 17:5] “because I have made you the father of many nations (av hamon goyyim)”[2]. Avraham had become a global phenomenon and his new name reflected his new mission. Calling Avraham by his original name, Avram, is demeaning and thus forbidden.

When Yaakov is born, we are told that [Bereishit 25:26] “his hand was holding onto Esav’s heel (ekev)”. After Esav discovers that Yaakov has stolen his blessing, he comments ruefully [Bereishit 27:36] “Isn’t it fitting that he was named ‘Yaakov’? For he has deceived (va’ya’akveini) me twice: he took my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing”. “Yaakov” is the name of a person who takes what he needs by any and all means necessary, including lying, cheating, and stealing. “Yisrael”, on the other hand, is different. Yaakov’s unknown assailant calls him by his new name, telling him [Bereishit 32:29] “you have wrestled (sarita) with [an angel of] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed” The Seforno comments that “You are worthy to sit with kings”. The name “Yisrael” comes from the word “s’rara”, or “mastery”. Yisrael is the name of a person who rightfully receives all that he deserves. But as opposed to Avram, who had his mission redrawn, Yaakov received an additional mission. At certain times, “Yaakov” comes to the fore and at other times it is “Yisrael” who takes the stage. For instance, when Yaakov is about to die, signalling the onset of the Egyptian exile, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 47:28] “Yaakov lived in Egypt for seventeen years” and then in the next verse “The time drew near for Yisrael to die”. It sounds as if the Torah is talking about two different people. Rather, it was Yaakov who lived in Egypt, not Yisrael. In the Egyptian exile there was no Jewish majesty. Pharaoh would make certain that Yisrael remained dead and buried for the duration of his stay.

I always find it interesting to go through a parasha and to analyse how well the “Yaakov-Yisrael Theory” fits. Two noteworthy examples stand out in Parashat Vayishlach: The first example occurs immediately after Yaakov has emerged victorious over his unknown assailant. He has been hurt in the thigh and he is limping. The Torah commands [Bereishit 32:33] “Therefore, the Sons of Israel (Bnei Yisrael) may not eat the displaced tendon (“gid hanashe”), which is on the socket of the hip, until this day, for he touched the gid hanashe of Yaakov’s hip”. The use of “Bnei Yisrael” is strange, in that only a few verses later, when Yaakov’s sons avenge their sister’s rape by destroying the town of the rapist after convincing them to circumcise themselves, they are called [Bereishit 34] “Bnei Yaakov”. The Talmud in Tractate Hullin [101b] notices this discrepancy and asserts that the title “Bnei Yisrael” was given to the Jewish people only after they received the Torah at Sinai[3], such that eating the gid hanashe became prohibited only after the Torah was given, even though Yaakov was injured many years earlier. Implementing the Yaakov-Yisrael Theory, it was not until the Jewish People received the Torah that we could take our rightful place among the nations of the earth as “Yisrael”. In contrast, avenging the rape of a Jewish woman by using trickery and subterfuge is the calling card of “Yaakov”.

The second example lies at the end of the parasha, where the Torah takes a deep dive into the lineage of Esav. The lineage concludes with a discussion of [Bereishit 36:31] “the kings that ruled in Edom before any king ruled over Bnei Yisrael”. The Torah enumerates eight kings, their birthplaces, and in some cases the names of their wives. The exquisite detail in which these kings are described is baffling. Why is it important to tell us that King Hadar came from Pa’u and married a woman named Mehetavel the daughter of Matred and the grand-daughter of Mei-Zahav? We have stated many times in these shiurim that the Torah is not a history book. The Torah is a book of ethics and laws. How do these random facts help me to become a better Jew? Further, when did these Edomite kings live? For that matter, when did the first king rule over Bnei Yisrael? And the question that most interests us, why does the Torah use the term “Bnei Yisrael”? Referring back to the Talmud in Tractate Hullin, does this mean that the first Jewish king ruled only after the Torah was given at Sinai? Not according to the Seforno and other medieval commentators, who assert that the king that the Torah is referring to is none other than Moshe Rabbeinu, who ruled over Bnei Yisrael even before the revelation at Sinai.

A way ahead can be found in the Midrash in Bereishit Raba. As Yaakov prepares to meet his brother Esav whom he has not seen in twenty years, a brother whom as far as he knows still wants to kill him, a brother whom he is told is approaching with four hundred armed soldiers, Yaakov sends a gift in an attempt to show Esav that he means no harm and that he is willing to let bygones be bygones. Yaakov sends messengers to Esav and tells them [Bereishit 32:5] “So shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Yaakov, ‘I have sojourned with Lavan, and I have tarried until now’’”. In preparation for the meeting, Yaakov acts obsequiously, referring to himself as “your servant” and to Esav as “my master” eight times[4]. According to the Midrash, Yaakov was punished for “debasing himself” by having to suffer through eight Edomite kings before his descendants could rule over themselves. Yaakov should have faced Esav as an equal. This fits in seamlessly with the Yaakov-Yisrael theory. Firstly, the Torah uses the words “before any king ruled over Bnei Yisrael”. Kings do not – they cannot – rule over Yaakov. Majesty is found only with Yisrael. Further, the reason that we had to wait through eight Edomite kings was that Yaakov had behaved like Yaakov and not like Yisrael. Yisrael would never have debased himself before Esav the way Yaakov did. Yisrael would have told Esav “I’m back. Either live with me or live against me. The choice is yours. But I’m not going anywhere”.

Am Yisrael has been living in exile for the past two-thousand years. A little more than one hundred years ago we began to shake off the shackles of bondage and to return to our homeland where we could once again live in sovereignty. Yaakov is preparing to leave the stage. Yisrael must be ready to take his place.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] Sometimes even rocket scientists dabble in the mystical.

[2] The “h” in Avraham is the “h” from the Hebrew word “hamon” – “many”.

[3] See the Talmud ad loc, especially Tosafot DH “L’Achar”.

[4] I leave this for the reader to enumerate. NB: It’s not that simple.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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