Vayishlach – Two Names with Opposite Personalities in One Person

Two Names, Given in Two Different Occasions(?), and a Third One.

There are many more stories in Parashat Vayishlach, each of them with a unique lesson to embrace.  The meeting with Esav, his brother, is one of them.  Another one is the tale of the rape of Dina his daughter.  We also read about the birth of Binyamin and the death of Raḥel, Ya-akov’s beloved wife.  In addition to the above, it tells the chronicles of Esav and his decedents.  I’d focus this conversation on the struggle that Ya-akov had with a “man” and the consequences of that fight.  As a result of his ability to sustain and prevail the wrestling Ya-akov gets a new name: Israel.  This renaming actually happens twice. 

First Renaming: Not Ya-akov, But Israel

The first occasion is in Genesis 32:25-31: the “man” Ya-akov struggled with explained the new name (quoting verse 29):   

He said: “Your name shall no longer be said ‘Ya-akov’, but Israel; for you strove (struggled) with Elohim (God, The Devine) and with human beings and you (could) prevailed.”

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃

Second Renaming: Your name is Ya-akov and I will call you Israel

The second time seems to happen later. It may have happened after the meeting with Esav, Ya-akov’s journey to Sh’khem, and the rape of Dina.  Following that event, God tells Ya-akov to return to Bet-El.  That is the place where he had the dream with the ladder when he escaped from Esav.  

However, there is a hint in 35:9 that may suggest a different point in time.  This verse starts a new paragraph in the Torah, thus disconnects this verse from the previous story:

God made Himself visible to Ya-akov, still during his coming from Paddan-Aram; He blessed him. 

וַיֵּרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב֙ ע֔וֹד בְּבֹא֖וֹ מִפַּדַּ֣ן אֲרָ֑ם וַיְבָ֖רֶךְ אֹתֽוֹ׃

It is possible that this encounter happened at the same time and place when Ya-akov struggled with the “man” (God?).  The blessing itself is in verses 10-12; verse 10 calls out the new name God gives Ya-akov:

God said to him, “Your name is Ya-akov; No more shall your name be called Ya-akov, but Israel shall be your name.”  He called his name Israel.

וַיֹּֽאמֶר ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים שִׁמְךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֑ב לֹֽא יִקָּרֵא֩ שִׁמְךָ֨ ע֜וֹד יַעֲקֹ֗ב כִּ֤י אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת שְׁמ֖וֹ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

The second renaming verse does not explain the reason for the new name.  Furthermore, and more importantly, God reaffirms that Ya-akov’s name is still Ya-akov; Ya-akov as a person is still the same.  Others will use the new name to call him by.  God is the first one to use the new name: “…He called his name: Israel”.   

A Third Name to the People of Israel: Yeshurun

Israel has yet another name: Yeshurun. Deuteronomy 32:15

So Yeshurun grew fat and kicked— You grew fat and gross and coarse— He forsook the God who made him And spurned the Rock of his salvation.

וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ן יְשֻׁרוּן֙ וַיִּבְעָ֔ט שָׁמַ֖נְתָּ עָבִ֣יתָ כָּשִׂ֑יתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ֙ אֱל֣וֹהַ עָשָׂ֔הוּ וַיְנַבֵּ֖ל צ֥וּר יְשֻׁעָתֽוֹ׃

Two meanings could emerge from the name Yeshurun.  The first is  Yashar – יָשָׁר – straight, upright, righteous, innocent.  The second is Yishar – יִישַׁר – will look forward straight and see clearly.

Here are a few comments from various sources and commentators on this name.

Ramban: the reason to calling Ya’akov Yeshurun – because the twisted and the curved becomes straight [quoting Isiah 40].

Rabenu Beḥayey: Yeshurun – because they saw the Shekhinah eye to eye when Torah was given to them.

Sforno: to teach you that the People of Israel are readers and scholars (coming from observing, looking intensely into things).

Malbim:  here are three names, Ya-akov, Yisrael and Yeshurun.  Ya-akov represents the body and Israel represents the soul and the roots that are in heaven [with God].   Yeshurun is the connection of both the soul and the body.

Let’s understand the various meanings of the Name of our People by looking at commentaries and other biblical references.  It will help explain what we are and how we should behave to justify our Name.


The root of this name is ע.ק.ב. – Ayin, Kof, Vet.

The verb form means – to follow someone else.  Could be following a leader, or one that knows the road, or also following a target, tracking it.

The noun OKEV – עוֹקֶב – means a follower – human being; also, could be a stalker; a tracker – instrument, a piece of hardware.  The noun MA’AKAV – מַעֲקָב – means stake-out, surveillance.

The noun AKEV – עָקֵב – means heel, the back side of the foot.  Also means the back side of the shoe’s sole.

The noun IKVAH – עִקְבָה – means footprint, trace on the ground of a moving object, whether an animal or a vehicle.

The conjunctive EKEV – עֵקֶב – means because, as a result of.

The adjective AKOV – עָקֹב – means distorted, twisted, deceitful (when it is used with human beings), not straight, high.  It is a Biblical word, not so much in use today in modern Hebrew.  Two examples of its use are:

Isiah 40:4: 

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.

כָּל-גֶּיא יִנָּשֵׂא וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה יִשְׁפָּלוּ וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה

Jeremiah 17:9:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?

עָקֹב הַלֵּב מִכֹּל, וְאָנֻשׁ הוּא מִי יֵדָעֶנּוּ

Surely the name befits the person!  Ya-akov was following Esav in birth, holding to his heel.  In his youth, still with his parents, he was deceitful, and didn’t always speak the truth.  That was the way he took Esav’s firstborn rite, and the blessing of Yitzḥak that was intended to Esav.  Even his departure from the house of Lavan in Paddan-Aram,  was deceitful.

In this Parashah, as we read the story of Dina, Ya-akov’s silence is deafening.  He is not taking the role of the leader, the head of the family.  The negotiations with the people of Sh’khem are done with his children.  He didn’t stop his sons from performing the atrocities against the People of Sh’khem (maybe he didn’t know?).  He only complained after the fact for the fear for the safety of his household.


The suffix El – means God.  The Word ISRA is derived from the root שׂ.ר.ה. – Sin. Reish. Heh.  We already know that the meaning of the verb is struggle, wrestle, fight.  An example of its use is in Hosea 12:4:

In the womb he followed his brother, holding his heel; and in his manhood and strength he wrestled with God.

בַּבֶּטֶן עָקַב אֶת אָחִיו; וּבְאוֹנוֹ שָׂרָה אֶת אֱלֹהִים

The word SAR – שָׂר – comes from a different root (שׂ.ר.ר.), however is connected to the previous one.  It means in modern Hebrew a Minister, and in Biblical Hebrew – governor, commander, chief Exodus 18:21):

…Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.

וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ עֲלֵהֶ֗ם שָׂרֵ֤י אֲלָפִים֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת שָׂרֵ֥י חֲמִשִּׁ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י עֲשָׂרֹֽת׃

Using the Two Names Interchangeably

Between the two events of naming, Ya’akov continues to be mentioned by that very name.  The first time the name Israel is used is in 35:21, right after the burial of Raḥel (there the name used is still Ya’akov).  Then, it is back to Ya’akov (see for instance, vs. 29).

The alternate use of Ya’akov and Israel in Genesis seems to be arbitrary.  However, it seems that Torah uses the name Ya-akov more often when referring to him as an ordinary person.   The use of Israel is more prevalent when the story deals with Ya‑akov the Patriarch of the People of Israel.

A good example to this is in chapter 46, when God is about to encourage Israel to go to Egypt.  God promises that He will be with them throughout their stay and exit from Egypt, making them a great nation.

Verse 2 in this chapter is the call itself, prior to the message.  The Hebrew origin contains twice a special trope called P’sik.  It is a silent trope, in the shape of a vertical line that separate between two words.  The purpose of this trope is to introduce a pause, a silence for a brief moment.

God called in a vision by night: “Israel!”  [no response]; He said: “Ja-akov! [no response, then again] Ja-akov!”  He [Ya-akov] answered, “Here I am [Hinneni].”

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמַרְאֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֣ב ׀ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

Another example is when Israel (not Ya-akov) blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48).  The switch between the names Israel and Ya-akov is noticeable, supporting the assertion above.  However, there are also exceptions to this rule.

Later in the Bible there is the use of both names one next to the other – mostly in important incidents.  Two worth mentioning are the Giving of Torah (Exodus 19:3):

The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Ya-akov and declare to the Children of Israel:

וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו ה’ מִן-הָהָר לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Here, many commentators explain, that the Torah was first given to the women, referred to as The House of Jacob, and only after they accepted the Torah, it was related to the men, Sons of Israel.  The same references to the two names prevails here as well.  The women at that time were responsible to the household, to educate the children and bring them up.  The men were the outwards representatives of the People of Israel.  I also discuss with deeper details this matter in the article on Parashat Yitro.

A friend asked me why we call the name Ya-akov in our blessings and prayers and not Israel.    Well, the choice which name to use in the prayer book follows the same general rule that is used in Torah.  And of course, there are exceptions… as are for any rule.  We use the name Israel more with reference to the People, and less when referring to the individual patriarch.  In the blessing for peace for instance that is also in the Kaddish, we use Israel. 

In the Amidah, on the other hand, we call out the individual names of the patriarchs, Avraham Yitzḥak and Ya-akov.  That is a prelude before we start asking for favors, and expressing our pleas.  Maybe we don’t want to remind God our defiance, and struggle with Him by calling out the name Israel…  A good example of a use of both names in in the last blessing before the Amidah on Shabbat Evening:

And it is said (Jeremiah 31:11): For the LORD will ransom Ya-akov, Redeem him from one too strong for him [maybe referring to the meeting with Esav].  Blessed are You, Adonai, Redeemer of Israel.

וְנֶאֱמַר: כִּי פָדָה ה’ אֶת יַעֲקב וּגְאָלו מִיַּד חָזָק מִמֶּנּוּ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ גָּאַל יִשרָאֵל

The verse starts with the salvation and redemption of the individual – Ya-akov.  The blessing and expression of gratitude that we conclude with is that He redeems the People of Israel.

What do commentators say about the two stories of name change?

The first incidence with the angle:

Rashi:  [THY NAME SHALL] NO MORE BE CALLED YA-AKOV [BUT ISRAEL] (literally, “not Ya-akov – supplanting – shall any more be said to thee”) – It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through supplanting and subtlety but through noble conduct (שררה) and in an open manner.  Because later on the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to you at Bethel and will change your name.  There He will bless you, and I shall be there and admit your right to them (the blessings).  

Sforno:  A reference to the end of days when Israel will have survived the destruction of the gentile nations.  When that time comes no one ever will again use the name Ya-akov for the Jewish people [and the stigma that used to be associated with that name].  The very word יעקב already contained within this message that the bearer of this name will triumph at the end.  Once he has triumphed there is no more point in having a name which alludes to something which will be realized only in the future.  The future will then have arrived!

The second incidence with God:

Rashi:  THY NAME SHALL NOT BE CALLED ANY MORE YA-AKOV – which means a man who comes as a lurker and trickster, but it shall be Israel (ישראל), which signifies Prince and Chief.

Sforno:  He blessed him in that the predictions which were meant for the end of time, were beginning to be implemented already from that time on, and not only while Ya‑akov was on holy soil in the land of Canaan, but even when he would be outside (as in Egypt).  From this time on no one who would attack Ya-akov and his family would meet with success.  This was the meaning of what our sages said in Sanhedrin 76:  ”wherever Ya-akov and his family walked on they became princes over their masters” and this is what the prophet Jeremiah bewailed in Lamentations 1,1 as to what the Jewish people lost as a result of the destruction of the Temple.

Conclusion: What am I, Ya-akov or Israel?

The answer to the question above is yes and yes.  In my early life, I was more of a follower, a Ya-akov, than a leader, Israel.  As a student, I followed my teachers.  So many times, I was also distorting the truth and the pure ethical behavior for personal benefit.  Yes, at times I cheated in exams (mostly by helping others…), or altered the tale of events to avoid punishment.  As I grew up, I started to be a leader.  Initially it was in small scale, as a skipper of a boat at school and a teacher. 

Later it was as an officer in the Navy, and as a manager at work.  And at the same time, I was following my superiors, yet with a critical evaluation.  At times, like Israel, I argued with leaders when I thought that what they asked me to do was wrong.  I wasn’t successful all the times, and there were incidents that I admitted that I was wrong.  More than once I chose to distort the presentation of the absolute truth, because it enabled a better defense for Israel.  My hope is that as I mature I behave more like Israel, and whenever I resort to act like Ya-akov, it is for a nobler purpose.

In general, following my own personal experience, I can say:  Israel – It is complicated!  Sometimes, both as individuals, as a community and People, we are Ya-akov and sometimes we are Israel.  So many times, we suffer, and need to deceit others in order to survive (as Ya-akov).  And there are times we are Israel – the light for the nations, a leader in so many areas.  We, as People, are moving from destruction and disaster to success and striving, and back down, only to be able to rise up again.

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