Commentary for Vayishlach

15 Nov

Names have a lot of meaning in the Bible. When an important character is born, especially in Genesis, we are not only told the character’s name, but why he or she was given that name. When a name is changed it is even more important because it marks a fundamental change in the character. In this week’s parshah Jacob spends all night wrestling an angel, and afterwards insists upon being blessed by the angel. The angel blesses him by giving him a new name, saying “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed (Gen 32:29).”

This change of name marks a newly-renamed Israel. Previously, as Jacob, he had spent most of the past twenty years concerning himself with worldly, material matters. He fled from his brother Esau for fear of his life, and spent twenty years working for his uncle Lavan to earn the right to marry Lavan’s daughters and start a family, and then to earn money to support that family. He then left Lavan’s household and is heading back to Cana’an, but is now concerned with having to face Esau again, having heard that Esau is bringing and army to slaughter him.

The night before his encounter with the angel, Jacob prays to God to protect him and his family from Esau. The next day Jacob sets off alone bearing a large gift of flocks for Esau and at night he encounters the angel. As they wrestle, Jacob puts all of his faith in God’s promise to protect him, and because of this he manages to defeat the angel, even ignoring a serious and painful thigh wound. Having put his faith in God’s protection rather than the physical limitations of his body, Jacob merits this blessing from the angel, and emerges from the ordeal as Israel, a man who has faith that God will help take care of his worldly material needs, and is thus able to focus much more on the spiritual aspects of life.

Then, in the very next verse after his re-naming, the Torah refers to Israel as “Jacob” again.
When Abraham’s name is changed, the name “Abram” is never mentioned again, and the Gemara even records a debate about whether to do so would be violating a commandment (Berachot 13a). Israel, on the other hand, is still often called Jacob throughout the rest of the Bible (even God does so in Gen. 46:2). This is done to teach us that both the material and the spiritual are important and neither should be focused on so much that we completely ignore of the other. In order to lead a healthy life, we must find the right balance between Jacob and Israel.

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