June 12, 2024
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Yaakov’s name change to Yisrael is very different from Avram’s name change to Avraham—for Yisrael constitutes an entirely new name. Furthermore, Yisrael serves not only as an alternate name for Yaakov, but ultimately becomes the official name for the entire Jewish people (and its land)!

To better appreciate why this name change is so significant, we must consider both when and where it took place: upon Yaakov’s return to the land after some 20 years of exile, and at the site of Bet-El.

Certainly, this is not the first time when God promises the Land of Israel to the offspring of our forefathers; however, it is the last time! As such, Yaakov’s name change marks the conclusion of the “bechira” process that began when Avraham Avinu was first chosen. No longer will only one son be chosen; now, everyone—all of Yaakov’s children—are chosen. The Jewish nation has begun!

No less significant is the site of the blessing, Bet El. It was in Bet El where Avraham Avinu first “called out in the Name of God” upon his first arrival in Israel (see 12:8), and once again upon his return from Egypt (see 13:4). It was also at this very site where God first appeared unto Yaakov (see 28:10-15), promising him that he was indeed chosen, even though he was now fleeing the land. Finally, it was also here where Yaakov stated his resolve to one day build a “house for God” upon his safe return (see 28:16-22); the same site, that according to our rabbinic tradition, became the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Thus, Yaakov’s name change to Yisrael takes place at both a most important site and at a most critical time in Yaakov’s life. Nonetheless, the Torah continues, at times, to call him Yaakov. Even at Mt. Sinai, God Himself continues to refer to our nation as both “the House of Yaakov” and the “sons of Yisrael” (see Shemot 19:3).

The reason may lie in the earlier incident at Peniel (see 32:24-30) during Yaakov’s struggle with an “ish”—whom Chazal identify as the “minister of Eisav.” But why does God find it necessary to initiate this confrontation?

Before this encounter, Yaakov—the “ish tam”—always preferred passivity, preferring “running away” instead of confrontation. In contrast, Eisav—the “ish sadeh”—was an active man with worldly qualities of leadership. But now upon Yaakov’s return to Israel, God initiates a confrontation, possibly testing (or training) Yaakov—to see if he was capable of fighting.

Although wounded and limping, Yaakov emerges victorious from this confrontation, thus earning his new name: “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have fought with beings divine (‘Elokim’) and human (‘anashim’) and triumphed” (32:29).

Throughout the rest of Chumash, the name Yaakov interchanges with Yisrael, suggesting that each name reflects a different aspect of his character. Yaakov’s new name Yisrael reflects his capability to engage head-on in battle—a trait that one day will become crucial when conquering the nations of Canaan. Yet his name also remains Yaakov, for there may be times when “passivity” will be the proper avenue.

Sefer Bereishit may be teaching us that in our formative stage, the fundamental character of Am Yisrael must be that of Yaakov, the “ish tam.” Only once that characteristic becomes rooted, then the traits of the “ish sadeh” can be added. Similar dilemmas will face the Jewish people throughout our history; our outward appearance as “Yisrael” must always stem from our inner character as “Yaakov.”


Rabbi Menachem Leibtag is an internationally acclaimed Tanach scholar and online Jewish education pioneer. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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