In this week’s Torah portion, a momentous event occurs. The patriarch Jacob is renamed “Israel,” and the Jewish people, as Jacob’s descendants, become the “Children of Israel.” The name Israel is connected both to the people and to the land that they eventually inhabit, transforming Canaan into the Land of Israel. But what does this name “Israel” mean, and why is it attached to our ancestor Jacob and to us?
By the time his name is changed, Jacob has been through a lot in his life. He has contended with his brother Esau over which of them would have the birthright, and he has colluded with his mother to trick his father into giving him the blessing of the first-born as well.
Seeking to escape Esau’s wrath, he has fled to his uncle Laban’s house to make a new life. He has worked seven years to marry Rachel, only to be unwittingly married to her sister Leah instead, and he has had to work another seven years to marry his original intended. Then, he has found his household full of strife, as Rachel and Leah have competed for his affections.
Meanwhile, he has fought to be fairly compensated by Laban for his labors. In short, Jacob’s life has been full of struggle. It has hardly been the easy, charmed life that he might have hoped for when he received his father’s blessing.
Now Jacob is returning to the land of his ancestors and finds that Esau is approaching him with 400 men. He devises means of protection for his family, and then he spends the night alone on the banks of the river and wrestles with a man until morning.
The ancient rabbis teach that this man is actually an angel, perhaps the guardian angel of Esau with whom Jacob has already spent so much time contending.
Finally, Jacob demands of the angel a blessing. The angel asks for his name. When he replies, “Jacob,” the angel says, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have been able [to do so].”
The name Israel is thus given its own etymology in the Torah: one who strives with God and human beings. In a neat turn of phrase, Rabbi Arthur Waskow translates Israel as “God-wrestler.” Jacob has known struggle throughout his life, contention with other human beings and wrestling within himself to come to terms with his own relationship with God.
Perhaps he has also had to struggle to reconcile the different parts of himself, the Jacob who uses trickery to get what he wants and the Jacob who sees angels climbing a ladder to the heavens and who hears God’s voice speaking to him.
The angel does not promise Jacob rest from his struggles. Instead, in giving Jacob the name Israel, the angel reaffirms that struggle is what Jacob’s life is for. He is meant to struggle with people, to struggle with God, to struggle with himself.
And we, his descendants, are intended to continue that struggle. We struggle with the Torah, with doing what is right, and with reconciling the human and divine parts of ourselves. When we enter into that struggle and claim it for ourselves, we truly become the Children of Israel.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected].