As Israel is involved in an ongoing battle with violent forces that seek to wipe it from the map, and as antisemites around the world wage an ideological battle to undermine the Jewish state’s very existence, it is an opportune moment to examine the ancient origin and founding mission of the Jewish nation.
In parshat Vayishlach, the Jewish people is given the name by which it will come to be known throughout the ages: Israel. The patriarch Jacob is renamed Yisroel as he returns to the land of his birth after two decades abroad, and ever since then the twelve tribes that he fathered have been called Bnei Yisroel, the children of Israel. What is the significance of this name, and why has it become the eternal moniker by which both the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland have been known?
The name Israel has many explanations. The most common is the way it is expounded in this week’s Torah portion by the angel who changes Jacob’s name after the two have wrestled. “It shall no longer be said that your name is Jacob, but rather Yisrael, for you have nobly contended with God and men and you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). This name Yisrael can be broken down into two words, “שׂר/sar,” which connotes nobility and victory, and “א-ל/E-l,”” which is one of the names of God. Because Jacob struggled against the angel of God and was victorious, his name was changed to Yisrael, meaning “one who has wrestled victoriously with God.”
The 16th century commentary Kli Yakar provides another stunning interpretation of the name Yisrael which helps us to understand Israel’s ultimate mission and purpose. Explaining the two component parts of the name slightly differently, the Kli Yakar identifies the first part of the word as “שׁר/shar” (rather than “sar”) which means “to see.” He thus translates the name to mean “One who sees God.”
The Kli Yakar further teaches that the name of the angel that fought with Jacob was “סַמאֵל/Samael,” which, according to Jewish mysticism, is the name of an angel otherwise known as “the satan.” Torah does not believe in a devil that works against God’s will, but the concept of “satan” is a force created by God to provide an alternative option so that one can choose to do the divine will rather than being forced to accede to it by compulsion. As such, the satan is as much a part of God as everything else, and its ultimate will is that one should be strengthened by the challenges that it presents. How does the satan challenge us? We see this through understanding its name. Samael is a compound of the Hebrew word “suma,” which means “blind,” and “E-l,” God. As opposed to Yisrael, which means “one who sees God,” Samael means “one who is blind to God.” Satan/Samael is the force that tries to blind us to God’s existence and presence.
From here we learn that the mission of the nation of Israel is to see God in everything and to reveal His omnipresence to all of His creations. There are potent and persistent forces in the universe that will constantly battle us in order to keep us from fulfilling this mission. Yet with all this, we must remain cognizant of the fact that it is God Himself who created the darkness and our blindness. It is God who creates the environment in which it is difficult for us to see Him. It is He who sends His servant Samael to kick dust in our eyes in an effort to maintain our myopia. And yet He creates the nation of Israel as a force of vision and light in the darkness. He provides Israel the Torah, and instructs us to teach its wisdom to the other nations. In so doing, He provides us all the potential to be victorious over Samael and all of our foes, and to manifest His infinite presence wherever it was previously unseen.