Parashat Vayishlah: Return to ourselves

What does the name Israel (Yisrael) really mean, and why does Jacob (Ya'acov) not go straight to his father's house after finally leaving Laban?

"And [the Lord] said, 'Not Jacob [Ya'acov] shall your name be called any longer, but rather Israel [Yisrael], because you have striven with gods and men and you have prevailed" (Genesis 32:29). What does the name Israel (Yisrael) really mean, and why does Jacob (Ya'acov) not go straight to his father's house after finally leaving Laban? We saw last week how the name Ya'acov (ekev means heel in Hebrew) can be taken to mean two very different things: a younger twin grasping the heel of the older as they emerge from the womb may connote either coming from behind, succeeding against desperate odds by dint of extraordinary effort, or usurping, supplanting - "heel-sneaking." In the latter instance, the "heel-sneak" always seeks to avoid both confrontation and responsibility. After all, the one who comes from behind can always claim he didn't actually say what you thought he said. Jacob could claim that he never really called himself Esau in front of his father, or that when he was genetically modifying his uncle's flocks, he was merely peeling tree branches for aesthetic reasons. Only the son willing to assume full responsibility and help realize Israel's mission will remain - prevail - in the end, if indeed "the end" connotes the messianic Redemption. We have already seen how the naïve dweller in tents became a scheming deceiver, first manipulating his elder brother into selling him the birthright, then pretending to be the brother he was not, and finally resorting to all manner of subterfuge in outsmarting his uncle. Indeed, the hands of the hunter and trapper Esau overcame the spiritually pure voice of Jacob, so that Jacob truly proved worthy of his name Ya'acov, the "crooked" grasper of his elder brother's heel. Yes, he turned himself inside out and upside down to gain the father's love he so needed, twice circumventing the legitimate gains which were his brother's due (Gen. 27:36). Jacob thus succeeds in burying his true character - until he suddenly realizes that his very dreams have become sullied. If our dreams reflect what we were thinking about when we were awake, then Jacob is no longer seeing angels ascending and descending a ladder connecting heaven and earth, but speckled, striped and spotted sheep. And this latter dream is not what he wishes to leave his son Joseph, eldest child of his beloved Rachel. In his oath over two decades earlier, Jacob had predicated his acceptance of Y-HVH as his God upon his return to his father's house in peace; he thought that meant his acceptance as a newly improved Esau. Now Jacob realizes that the very opposite is the case: he must find the courage to be what he really is, a wholehearted dweller of tents, whether his father values it or not. He must become his own man, God's man. He leaves Laban - and wiley Labanism - behind. He is ready to confront Esau and return his unearned blessing by giving his elder brother his "crookedly" gained material blessings. But first he must stand alone, he and God, and exorcise the Esausism - the very desire to become Esau in order to gain paternal favor - from the depth of his being. He wrestles with himself, and thus comes back to his true self. He is no longer the crooked Ya'acov, but the straight and upright Yisrael i.e. Yisra or Yashar person of God (El). He is now almost ready to return home; he must first, however, test his new persona by walking in a straight line rather than cutting corners. He takes Simeon and Levi to task for selling the men of Shechem a bill of goods about circumcision rather than confronting them as rapists: "You have muddied me, causing me to stink in the eyes of the inhabitants of the land…" (34:30). Jacob then mourns the death of Rebekah's wet nurse Deborah, but Rebekah herself, who instigated Jacob's crookedness, is not even mentioned! In mourning only the nurse, he confronts the anger he feels for his mother. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.