The Parsha in a Nutshell
In this week’s parsha,we read the story of Yaakov and Esav’s reunion. After many years of separation, Yaakov hears that his brother is on his way to meet him with an army of four hundred men. So he decides to do three things. 1. He divides his camp into two separate group. 2. He prays to God for help. 3. He sends servants to deliver gifts to Esav.
That night he is attacked by a mysterious stranger, who he fights. He refuses to let the stranger go until he is given a blessing. Instead, the stranger gives Yaakov a new name – Yisrael, which means “someone who fights with God and with men and wins.” Our Rabbis teach us that Yaakov had been re-named by an angel.
The next day the two brothers meet, and hug. Yaakov had been scared they would fight but instead there is only love between them.
The parsha ends with the death of Yitzchak, and a list of all of the descendants of Esav.
Question to Ponder
What do you think was going through Yaakov’s mind when Esav was approaching?
The Core Idea
After his wrestling match with the angel, Yaakov was told: “No longer shall you be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have fought with God and men, and have won” (Bereishit 32:29). This new name is in fact given a second time in our parsha. After his meeting with Esav, and the story of Dina and Shechem, God tells Yaakov to go to Beth El. Then we read: “After Yaakov returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, ‘Your name is Yaakov, but you will no longer be called Yaakov; your name will be Yisrael.’ So He named him Yisrael” (Bereishit 35:9-10).
This is not an adjustment of an existing name by the change or addition of a letter, like when God changed Avram’s name to Avraham, or Sarai’s to Sara. It is an entirely new name, as if to say that this will be a complete change of character. It is therefore puzzling that having said twice that his name will no longer be Yaakov, the Torah continues to call him Yaakov. God Himself does so. So do we, every time we pray to the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. How can this be when the Torah twice tells us that his name will no longer be Yaakov?
The Radak suggests that “your name will no longer be called Yaakov” means, “your name will no longer only be called Yaakov.” You will have another name as well. This is clever, but it certainly is not the plain meaning of the verse. Sforno says, “In the Messianic Age, your name will no longer be called Yaakov.” This is also difficult. The future tense in the Torah generally means the near future, not the distant one, unless clearly specified.
A third approach is to read this not as a statement but as a request, a challenge, an invitation. Read it not as, “You will no longer be called Yaakov but Yisrael.” Instead read it as, “Let your name no longer be Yaakov but Yisrael,” meaning don’t be what the name Yaakov represents, rather be what the name Yisrael represents.
So the question is, what do the names Yaakov and Yisrael represent?
Questions to Ponder
1. Why did Yaakov need a new name? What was wrong with his old name?
2. Do names matter? What do they represent?
It Once Happened…
They say the chances of two world-class athletes being born in to the same family were as likely as the same parents giving birth to Picasso and Monet. And yet Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time, are sisters.
Venus was born in June 1980, followed by her sister Serena just 15 months later. Venus’ obvious talent as a tennis player was first spotted when she was 7, and by the time she was 10 the family had moved to Florida so she and Serena could attend a tennis academy there.
Venus was the first to turn professional, aged just 14, followed by Serena exactly one year later. Venus was also the first to win Wimbledon and the first to be ranked World No. 1. In their early professional matches playing against each other, Venus was the dominant player, winning 4 of their first 5 matches. The pressure on Serena must have been immense. Her desire to be, and to beat, her older sister may have fuelled her hard work.
Today, Serena has spent many more weeks ranked as World No. 1 (316 weeks for Serena, 11 weeks for Venus) and she has won 72 singles titles to Venus’ 49. They have played each other 30 times, Serena leading Venus 18-12.
Serena played tennis to emulate her sister, as younger siblings often do. She soon found out she was just as talented as her sister, and that she could find her own strengths and develop an individual, forceful style, playing in her own way. She progressed as a player, and achieved astounding successes. And when the two sisters played together in doubles matches, they became an almost invincible team!
Most important in this story is the close bond of love between the two sisters. They hate playing against each other, because they know there will have to be a loser. But this strong relationship brings a unique perspective to competition. For one sister, the joy of winning is dimmed by the pain of having inflicted a loss. For the other, the pain of losing will be brightened by the joy of watching a loved one win.
Questions to Ponder
1. Do you think you would be more or less likely to take up tennis if your sister was Venus Williams?
2. What do you think is the most important message we can take from this story?
Thinking More Deeply
Yaakov and Esav are two different kinds of human being. Commentators, and stories in the Midrash, contrast the two men heavily, to the point where Esav is depicted as the exact opposite of Yaakov. One is shown as wholly bad to make it clear that the other is purely good. But in the text of the Torah, there is more subtlety. We read less about the golden hero and the evil villainous character, but more about two very different personalities. Yaakov represents reason, modesty, order, self-control, while Esav stands for emotion, pride and passion.
It is not so much that Esav is bad and Yaakov good, but that Esav represents the world that was, while Yaakov represents a new world about to be brought into being, whose spirituality would be radically different, new and challenging.
The fact that Yaakov and Esav are twins is fundamental to understanding them. Their relationship is one of the classic cases of sibling rivalry. A key to examining their story is understanding mimetic desire: the desire to have what someone else has, because they have it. Ultimately, this is the desire to be someone else.
That is what the name Yaakov signifies. It is the name he acquired because he was born holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. That was his posture during the key events of his early life. He bought his brother’s birth right. He wore his brother’s clothes. At his mother’s request, he took his brother’s blessing. When asked by his father, “Who are you, my son?” He replied, “I am Esav, your firstborn.”
Yaakov was the man who wanted be Esav. Why so? Because Esav, the firstborn, had his father’s unconditional love. “Yitzchak… loved Esav, but Rebecca loved Yaakov.”
All that changed in the great wrestling match between Yaakov and the angel. That was when he was told that his name would now be Yisrael. The stated explanation of this name is: “for you have wrestled with God and with man and have prevailed.” It also resonates with two other senses. The root letters in the name Yisrael are Sar which means “prince, royalty”. Yashar means “upright.” Both of these are in sharp contrast with the name “Yaakov,” from ekev, so named because he was one who “holds on to his brother’s heel.”
The mysterious stranger (the angel), and then God, challenged Yaakovto, “Let your name no longer be Yaakov but Yisrael,” meaning, “Act in such a way that this is what people call you. Be a prince. Be royalty. Be upright. Be yourself. Don’t long to be someone else. This would turn out to be a challenge not just then but many times in the Jewish future.”
Often, Jews have been content to be who they are born to be. But from time to time, they have come into contact with a civilisation whose intellectual, cultural and even spiritual sophistication was undeniable. It made them feel awkward, inferior, like a villager who comes to a city for the first time. Jews lapsed into the condition of Yaakov. They wanted to be someone else.
The first time we hear this is in the words of the prophet Yechezkel: “You say, ‘We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world, who serve wood and stone.’” (Yechezkel 20:32). In Babylon, the people encountered an impressive empire whose military and economic success contrasted radically their own condition of exile and defeat. Some wanted to stop being Jews and become someone else, anyone else.
We hear it again in the days of the Greeks. Some Jews became Hellenised. We recognise that in the names of High Priests like Jason and Menelaus. The battle against this is the story of Chanukah. Something similar happened in the days of Rome. Josephus was one of those who went over to the other side, though he remained a defender of Judaism.
It happened again during the period of Enlightenment. Jews fell in love with European culture. With philosophers like Kant and Hegel, poets like Goethe and Schiller, and musicians like Mozart and Beethoven. Some were able to integrate this with faithfulness to Judaism as creed and deed – figures like Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Nechemiah Nobel. But some did not. They left the fold. They changed their names. They hid their identity. None of us is entitled to be critical of what they did. The combined impact of intellectual challenge, social change, and incendiary antisemitism, was immense. Yet this was a Yaakov response, not an Yisrael one.
It is happening today in large swathes of the Jewish world. Jews have overachieved. Judaism, with some notable exceptions, has underachieved. There are Jews at or near the top of almost every field of human endeavour today, but all too many have either abandoned their religious heritage or are indifferent to it. For them, being Jewish is a slender ethnicity, too thin to be transmitted to the future, too hollow to inspire.
We have waited so long for what we have today and have never had simultaneously before in all of Jewish history: independence and sovereignty in the state of Israel, freedom and equality in the diaspora. Almost everything that a hundred generations of our ancestors prayed for has been given to us. Will we really throw this all away? Or will we embrace our Judaism? Will we be Yisrael? Or will we show, to our shame, that we have not yet outlived the name of Yaakov, the person who wanted be someone else? Yaakov was often fearful because he was not sure who he wanted to be, himself or his brother. That is why God said to him, “Let your name not be Yaakov but Yisrael.” When you are afraid, and unsure of who you are, you are Yaakov. When you are strong in yourself, as yourself, you are Yisrael.
The fact that the Torah and tradition still use the word Yaakov, not just Yisrael, tells us that the problem has not disappeared. Yaakov seems to have wrestled with it throughout his life, and we still do today. It takes courage to be different, a minority, countercultural. It’s easy to live in the moment, like Esav, or to “be like the peoples of the world” as Ezekiel said.
I believe the challenge issued by the angel still echoes today. Are we Yaakov, embarrassed by who we are? Or are we Yisrael, with the courage to stand upright and walk tall in the path of faith?
Question to Ponder
In what ways do you express your identity and show you are proud of who you are?
From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
“Sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we discover that we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is. We each have our own blessing… Sibling rivalry is not fate but tragic error. As a young man, Yaakov had wanted to be what he was not. Alone at night, wrestling with the angel, he discovered the conflict-dissolving truth that it is for what we uniquely are that we are loved.”Not in God’s Name, p.141
Around the Shabbat Table
- Why was Yaakov jealous of Esav? Why did he wish to be him?
- What message was contained in the new name the angel gave to Yaakov?
- What can Jews learn today from Yaakov’s two names?
The Parsha in a Nutshell
The Torah tells us that Yaakov was afraid. He had run away many years earlier, because Esav had sworn to kill him. While it is impossible to know everything Yaakov was feeling, we can speculate based on human nature and our understanding of their relationship from the narrative in the text. Yaakov must have hoped they could reconcile (proved by his symbolic subservience in the messages and gifts he sent ahead to Esav). But perhaps he also had a greater sense of self and self-worth, and was no longer so envious of Esav. Perhaps he felt he could finally embrace Esav as an equal, and was hoping for the opportunity to do so.
The Core Idea
- To answer this question, it is helpful to know what the name Yaakov means, and what it represented, which was a desire from birth be in Esav’s position. From his first act during his birth, Yaakov was grabbing on to the heel of his brother, perhaps in a failed attempt to be the first twin born, and therefore the eldest, the firstborn. So was named Yaakov, which means “heel-grasper”. His new name, Yisrael, represented a pride in who he was (yashar – straight, or a sar – prince). His new name was a challenge set to him to move on from his desire to be his elder brother, and come to terms with his own identity and role.
- Names represent identity. They are given to us by our parents (or in this case God) as a statement of values and culture and we carry them with us everywhere. They indicate who we are. In this story they represent who Yaakov was in birth and who he was called on to be – they express his understanding of his own identity and destiny.
It Once Happened…
- Younger siblings often want to be just like their older siblings (like in our parsha) and need to be encouraged to be their own people. Serena Williams, like Yaakov, ultimately established herself as a player and a person in her own right, although she followed in her sister’s footsteps. However, the concept of de-identification also exists, where the siblings strive hard to be different to their sibling so they don’t have to compete directly (or perhaps this is another way of competing, by trying to be unique and special). It is natural for us to rebel against our siblings, trying to set out on our own path, and forge our own identity. If we are aware of this tendency, we can check that we are making choices for the right reasons, and not only from a desire to be different.
- While sibling rivalry is natural, the love between siblings (which is equally natural) can show a positive way to compete. The Williams sisters love and support each other as unique individuals, and while they compete fiercely, they also cheer each other on, and root for them, because the foundation of their relationship is sisterly love.
Thinking More Deeply
We all have opportunities in our lives to step up and be proud to be Jews, whether in conversations, or with our external appearances, in our actions and in our choices. We each need to feel proud of who we are and how we live our lives. Non-Jews will also feel more respect for the Jews who respect their own identity and traditions.
Around the Shabbat Table
- Yaakov was born holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. Right from the beginning he wanted to be in Esav’s place. He bought his brother’s birth right. He wore his brother’s clothes. At his mother’s request, he took his brother’s blessing. When asked by his father, “Who are you, my son?” He replied, “I am Esav, your firstborn.” Yaakov wanted be Esav. The main reasons being that he believed that the firstborn would inherit the covenant with God, and that Yitzchak’s relationship with Esav was apparently stronger.
- The angel gave Yaakov a new name not as a statement but as a request, a challenge, an invitation. Not “you will no longer be called Yaakov but Yisrael” but, “Let your name no longer be Yaakov but Yisrael,” meaning “Act in such a way that this is what people call you.”
The name Yisrael means: “for you have wrestled with God and with man and have prevailed.” But it also contains two other meanings.
Sar means “prince, royalty.” Yashar means “upright.” Both of these are in sharp contrast with the name “Yaakov,” one who “holds on to his brother’s heel.”
This is a message for all Children of Israel. Be royalty. Be upright. Be yourself. Don’t waste your life longing to be someone else.
- The fact that the Torah and tradition still use the word Yaakov, not just Yisrael, tells us that the problem has not disappeared. Yaakov seems to have wrestled with it throughout his life, and we still do today.
Often, Jews have been content to be themselves. But from time to time, we are tempted by other people’s ways, both individuals and civilisations. This has happened throughout history and it still happens today. It takes courage to stand up and be different, to be a minority, to be countercultural. Look at Rabbi Sacks’ final statement of belief in Thinking More Deeply, and consider how you can embrace your Jewish identity and your beliefs, your strengths and your own unique personality. (Also see Answer 2, above).
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.