Jacob or Israel?

Sunday, 3 December, 2017 - 12:16 pm

Israel.jpgJacob or Israel?

In what is perhaps one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the Torah, Jacob meets his brother Esau after twenty years of rift and separation. Jacob fled his father’s home, after stealing the blessings which his father Isaac intended for his older son Esau. In this week’s portion we read about the heartfelt reunion between the brothers.


Prior to the reunion, we read that “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”, and finally, when the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he asked to be allowed to go, Jacob refused to allow him to go until he would bless him:


So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed."


Who was this mysterious man? One interpretation[1] is that the man who wrestled with Jacob while Jacob was alone (which seems to be an inherent contradiction, if a man wrestled with him, than by definition Jacob  was not alone) was none other than Jacob himself. The struggle between Jacob and the man (who the sages refer to as the angel, or energy of Esau) represents an internal struggle between the force of good and the negative within Jacob himself. Before Jacob could reconcile with his brother Esau, he was first compelled to wrestle with his internal Esau. He was compelled to settle the internal struggles and contradictions within himself before he could find peace within himself.  


The struggle lasted all night. Jacob asks for a blessing. Instead of a blessing “the man” got into a discussion about names, the conversation went as follows:

So he said to him (to Jacob), "What is your name?":


“the man” asked Jacob: What is your name? What is your identity? How do you self define?


and he said, "Jacob."


The name Jacob denotes struggle. The name Jacob, which also means heel, was given to Jacob because as he emerged from the womb he was holding on to the heel of his  twin brother Esau. The name Jacob represents the constant battle between the internal Jacob and Esau, the spirit and the matter, the sensual and the transcendent. Jacob told the angel that his name was Jacob. He explained that he was constantly being drawn between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual.


And he (“the man”) said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means to rule), because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.


He told Jacob, that there is a place within himself where there is no struggle at all. At his core, which is pure holiness, there is a state of consciousness where there is no struggle to begin with. When the core of the soul is felt in the conscious mind, then evil, temptation and negativity lose all appeal and are not enticing to begin with.


Each of us has both a Jacob and an Israel within ourselves. There is a place in our heart where we have to struggle to be the person we know we want to be. We have to struggle to be kind, joyful, patient and considerate. There is a place within ourselves where it takes a struggle to delay gratification and invest in a relationship over immediate pleasure. There are times, when we are Jacob. 

Yet, when we look deeply within ourselves, we discover that there is a part of us that is Israel, where we reign over the negativity even without a battle. There are times when there is no struggle.


Jacob is compared to a Jew as he is during the six days of the week, when he is involved in the business of daily life; while Israel is compared to a Jew as he or she exists on Shabbat, when they tune out the mundane and touch the spiritual side of existence.[2]


As Jacob prepared to face his brother Esau, he first spent the night in introspection, experiencing the wrestling within his soul. As the sun rose  Jacob realized, that from that point on his primary name was Israel. While we experience Jacob, we are Israel. Living on this earth presents us with challenge, difficulty and struggle, yet our identity is not Jacob. The struggle with evil and selfishness does not define who we are. We engage in Jacob but we are Israel. Our truest self is the part of us which sees the material, not as a contradiction to, but rather as a vehicle for holiness. Our truest self is the Israel within us, the part of us which intuitively feels connected to G-d.

[1] See Malbim.
[2]  See Lekutey Torah, Mammar Lo Hibit Aven Biyaakov (Sefer Bamidbar  70:3 
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