- Written by D Fine
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Names/words in the Torah always describe the essence of the object. Thus, unlike in English, the Torah word for an object describes the thing itself. Let’s take an example; a tower. In English the only reason that you think of a tall (predominantly cylindrical) building when I say the word ‘tower’ is because someone told you that when you hear the word tower, it refers to that object. But if we all got together and decided to swap the word ‘tower’ for the word ’table,’ then when you heard ‘table’ you would picture a tall building, and ’tower’ would bring memories of fine shabbes meals (depending the one’s wife’s culinary expertise, of course!). In Torah, however the word describes the object - tower is migdal from the root gimel daled lamed meaning big (gadol). This is one of countless examples, and is why the word for ‘a thing’ in Torah is the same as the word for ‘a word;’ davar (R’ Tatz). Likewise, the Arizal used to say that when one gets to shamayim then they will ask you for your name, and whoever has fulfilled his life mission will be able to state their name, and the others will not - for a name is who one is and what their goal is. (shem, name, is the same letters as sham, there, ie point of destination). This is actually why people say the names with the letters of their names in at the very end of shmonah esrei (Shelah). Taking all of this on board, when we read of a change in name in Torah, we are not just talking about a cute extra letter, but a change in personality/essence. Ok, so back to the point…
In this week’s sedra, Yaakov’s name is changed to Yisrael. First, when Yaakov fights the angel of esav, the angel informs Yaakov that his name will later be changed to Yisrael (32;29 & rashi there), and later HaShem does indeed create this name-change (35;10). Now, we know that Avraham also had his name changed [from Avram to Avraham,] yet we find a major difference between Avraham’s name-change and that of Yaakov. The gemarra in brachos (13a) notes that whilst one transgresses a commandment if they call Avraham by his previous name, no such transgression is present if one calls Yaakov by his ’former’ name Yaakov. This, the gemarra says, is because HaShem Himself continues to use the name Yaakov even after the name Yisrael has been given. But the question is why indeed is it that HaShem does not replace Yaakov with Yisrael whilst fully replaces the name ‘Avram’ with Avraham? [One could similarly ask; if every name change is a major essential change, what is changed at all if Yaakov retains his previous name?]
One approach to this is the following…
That gemarra tells us that Avram meant ‘father of Aram,’ whilst Avraham means ‘father to the entire world.’ The Maharsha explains that Avraham’s extra heh changed him from having no fitting child to continue his mission into being able to bring Yitzchak into the world, who would inherit his legacy in changing the global scene. Thus, calling Avraham by his previous name is inaccurate at best, since it does not reflect his true nature. But when Yaakov was changed to Yisrael, the ‘Yaakov part’ remained. What does this mean?
The concept is that Yaakov was the last in the Avos and thus the link between the individual pillars of the religion (the avos) and that multiplying into an entire nation (the 12 tribes; his sons). He was individually spiritually mighty, and also had the ingrained personality to create a communal nation. These two facets, the individual and the collective, are the names Yaakov and Yisrael. Yaakov embodies the individual, whilst Yisrael characterises the ability to branch out into a nation. There are many illustrations of this. For example, immediately after HaShem gives the name Yisrael, he blesses that ‘a nation…will emerge from you.’ Similarly, apparently the Zohar says that the word yisrael stands for yesh shishim rebuiy osios latorah (there are 60 x 10,000 letters in the Torah) - 600,000; one for every head of family who left Egypt; again the collective concept that we as a nation coming together bring out the fullness of Torah, for we each individually have a part in it. And let’s not forget that the nation became to be known as bnei yisrael and not bnei yaakov. My favourite illustration of this is in the famous blessing we say upon entering shul which Bilam gives to Bnei Yisrael in Bamidbar (24;5) ma tovu ohaleicha Yaakov mishkenosecha yisrael. (‘how good are your tents Yaakov, your dweillings Yisrael’).Why change mid-pasuk from describing the Jewish people as Yaakov to Yisrael? Because, as rashi points out, Bilam saw that our tents were private and their openings not facing each other, and he was blessing us for our modesty and privacy. This is exactly the point; he was blessing our ability to remain tents of Yaakov (individuals, private) even amongst the encampments of Yisrael (a whole collective nation). One last gem is that each of the 3 ‘foot festivals’ correspond to a different of the Avos. Yaakov’s is sukkos (as we see that he made ‘booths;’ 33;17), and here too do we see this combination of the individual and the collective. Where? In the lulav and the sukkah. The lulav in halacha must belong to you (the individual), whilst the sukkah is that of the communal; the gemarra (sukkah 27b) says that every single Jew could sit in the same one massive sukkah, and we invite in the ushpizin guests too.
We now have the ammunition to tackle the question asked above; this is why Yaakov’s name remains whilst Avraham‘s previous name vanishes. Avraham completely replaced Avram, for his nature was changed, with his new nature of Avraham negating the existence of the old nature encapsulated by the old name. In contrast, Yisrael (the collective) did not remove Yaakov (the individual), but added an extra aspect/facet to him; that of the collective. And both of these aspects are present in the current Bnei Yisrael; the sand (collectively strong) and stars (individually shining).
Have a great Shabbes,