Ya’akov and Yisrael – Two Levels
Rav Mordechai Gershon
לע"נ אחיה, שמעון העניך מנדל בן יעקב ז"ל
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Ya’akov and Yisrael – Two Levels
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How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.
Tents are temporary, while “dwellings” are permanent. In the wilderness, Israel lodged in tents, but they were prepared to enter the Land and lodge in permanent dwellings. Balak saw this, and said of the tents of the wilderness “how goodly are your tents, Ya’akov;” and concerning their permanent dwellings in Eretz Yisrael, he said “how goodly are your dwellings, Yisrael.” The name “Yisrael” is greater than the name “Ya’akov,” for when they enter the Land, they will be on a higher level and will be called “Yisrael.”
Malbim comments that there are two appellations for Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), which represent two distinctly different levels: “Ya’akov” and “Yisrael.”
We received each of these names from our father Ya’akov. The name Ya’akov was given to him by his parents at birth because of the fact that “his hand held the heel of his brother Esav” [Bereishit 25:26], while the name Yisrael was given to him by the angel whom he wrestled at the Yabok crossing, when he returned to Israel from Charan (and subsequently confirmed by God Himself [Ibid. 35:10]); in the angel’s words “because you have struggled with (an angel of) God and with men, and you have prevailed.” [Ibid. 32:29]
The reasons for the choice of the names indicate the significant difference between the levels each represents.
The appellation “Ya’akov” is derived from the word akev, due to Ya’akov holding Esav’s heel. The heel, as the lowest part of the human body, clearly symbolizes the trait of lack of stature and subjugation to other powers.
On the other hand, the appellation “Yisrael,” derived from the word “s’rara” (authority, power) implies the opposite; it is the prime expression of the status of importance and of superiority.
For example, Or HaChayyim [Bereishit 47:28] comments that the name “Ya’akov” appears primarily in verses which refer to Ya’akov’s suffering, while “Yisrael” is used in connection with the periods of joy and prosperity, thus expressing the level of completion and superiority.
Avraham – Changing Destiny; Ya’akov – Changing the Approach
Unlike Ya’akov, Avraham’s name was irrevocably changed, from “Avram” to “Avraham.” The reason God changed Avram’s name is stated explicitly: “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” [Ibid. 17:5] Rashi comments: “(Until now) he was father only of Aram, his own and, now he will be father to the entire world.”
This name change conveys a fundamental change in Avraham’s mission of spreading belief in monotheism throughout the world. Basically, Avraham’s life can be divided into two periods: the first, encompassing his years in Ur Kasdim and Charan, during which he brought the message of belief in a single Almighty God to the people of Aram, and hence he was known as “Avram” (= Av Aram [“father of Aram”]); the second period is marked by God’s change of his name to “Avraham” (= Av Hamon Goyim [“father of a multitude of nations”]). The spiritual mission of Avraham, as founder of Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), is no longer limited to the people of his homeland, but expands to all of humanity. Specifically, by focusing on a single nation and investing efforts in developing and perfecting it, Avraham will ultimately be able to influence the entire world.
However, the situation of Ya’akov is different; his life’s mission is not changed. The mission begun by Avraham was carried on by his son Yitzḥak and grandson Ya’akov. Indeed, it is Ya’akov, “the choicest of the Fathers” [Midrash Bereishit Rabba 76:1], who completes Avraham’s mission by being the link which completes the dynasty of the Fathers and by virtue of his children being entirely holy and worthy of being named “the Children of Israel.”
The change of Ya’akov’s name therefore does not convey a change in his mission, rather hints at different approaches to realizing the mission. On the road to Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) realizing its fulfillment, the nation will likely experience a variety of challenges, including encounters and struggles with other nations and cultures. The manner in which Am Yisrael will deal with these challenges can be on the level of authority and importance, as implied by the name “Yisrael” or on the low level of subservience, as implied by the name “Ya’akov.” Each of these approaches is a possibility for the nation to realize the mission which has already been given to Avraham.
The name “Yisrael” supplements the name “Ya’akov” rather than replacing it. The angel’s blessing to Ya’akov was that though the level of “Ya’akov” had been predominant until now, with Ya’akov having had to escape the wrath of his brother, and being at the mercy of Lavan, he will experience times of authority and power, ascending to the level of “Yisrael.” These days will come when Israel dwells securely in its Land, without fear of enemy or oppressor; however, the road to realizing this level is long, and until the final redemption, the names “Ya’akov” and “Yisrael” will be used intermittently, at times the level of “Yisrael” will be dominant, at others the level of “Ya’akov.”
Ya’akov – Triumph at Times of Weakness
We have noted that “Ya’akov” and “Yisrael” apparently represent contradictory levels: “Ya’akov” subservience and “Yisrael” authority and superiority.
On a deeper plane, the two levels are interconnected and share a common denominator. In the life of a nation, as in the life of individuals, there are situations of success and prosperity and others of weakness and of the hidden Divine countenance. In the former, it is simple to serve God and live a worthy spiritual life. However, in times of suffering and the hidden countenance, it is much more difficult. When it appears that God is inattentive to us and abandons us to the whims of the nations of the world, it is natural that our faith is weakened, and it is more difficult to be committed to faith and fear of Heaven. At such times, greater strength and spiritual power is required to persist in Divine service and in devotion to God. At these times, we must use the quality of the name “Ya’akov,” the ability to strive and overcome even when we are subjugated to a hostile foreign power. As Ya’akov was able to struggle and succeeded in surviving the plots of Esav and Lavan, so too we will be able to survive as the result of the ability imprinted within us.
It is now clear why Ya’akov received two names which seemingly convey contradictory states. As the one who completed the work of the Forefathers, revealing their mission in the world through fathering the twelve tribes of Israel, thereby actually building Am Yisrael, Ya’akov must be blessed with the two qualities which are essential for the nation’s survival on the long road to completion of Divine mission for which is was established. The quality of “Ya’akov” allows the nation to survive in times of suffering and hidden countenance, while the quality of “Yisrael” allows the nation to reach the level of authority and superiority in which it can declare God’s name and bring the entire world under the wings of the Shechina. Each of the qualities signifies refusal to surrender or accept a foreign sovereign over the nation; the former from a position of inferiority, the latter from a position of superiority.
Revelation of the Status of “Yisrael” in Eretz Yisrael
Similar to Malbim’s comments quoted above, Ramban [Bereishit 46:2] notes that the name “Yisrael” is designated for use when Israel is within Eretz Yisrael, free of the bonds of exile and subjugation to the nations of the world. When Israel is outside its Land, exiled from its natural place, the nation cannot achieve true authority, and is therefore known as “Ya’akov.” Only when the nation returns permanently to its Land, making Eretz Yisrael its eternal home, is it able to achieve true authority and influence over the nations and become “Yisrael.”
In Eretz Yisrael we are expected, and indeed commanded, to act in a manner of authority and mastery, When the Torah commands “Take possession of the land and settle in it because I have given you the land to possess” [Bamidbar 33:53], it does not command us simply to occupy the Land, but to conquer her and make ourselves her undisputed master. Thus Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna (1821-93) defines it in his Responsa Yeshuot Malko: “The essence of this mitzva (settling the Land) is inheriting her and living within her as one who does whatever he wishes in his own domain; to conquer Eretz Yisrael so she is under our complete control.”
Thus, it is clear: Eretz Yisrael is the place which is appropriate for the nation to achieve the level of absolute authority and indeed, we are so commanded. Therefore, there is no place better suited for revelation of the name “Yisrael,” which expresses the great level of Am Yisrael within its Land.
The Significance for Our Generation
As Jews who are privileged to live permanently in Eretz Yisrael and to see with our own eyes the strengthening of its settlement, we must reflect on and internalize the significance of this process. Am Yisrael’s return to its Land and the ongoing ingathering of exiles indicate that we are experiencing the transition from “Ya’akov” to “Yisrael.” Gradually but continuously, we are ascending to the level of authority and superiority, with increasing ability to successfully deal with internal and external difficulties. Until a short time ago, we were on the level of “Ya’akov,” able to deal with the forces opposite us, but still subservient to them, unable to completely overcome them; but currently we have merited the level which allows us to struggle and “prevail” and to be victorious.
We must appreciate this lofty level which has been granted us at this time and in this place and to implement it whenever we encounter seemingly insurmountable challenges. We have the ability to succeed and to overcome, if we but realize this fact and act in accordance.