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Double Identity

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And [the angel] said: “No longer shall your name be called Jacob; rather, Israel shall be your name. For you have struggled with the divine and with men, and you have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

So said the angel with whom Jacob wrestled for a night prior to his historic encounter with Esau. Later, we read that G-d Himself appeared to Jacob and reiterated the change of his name to Israel.[1]

Abraham, too, had his name changed (from Abram) by G-d. But with Abraham, the change was absolute; the Talmud[2] goes so far as to say, “Whoever calls Abraham ‘Abram’ violates a prohibition of the Torah, as it is written, ‘No[3] longer shall your name be called Abram.’” Jacob, too, was told, “No longer shall your name be called Jacob,” yet the Torah continues to call him by both names, often alternating between Jacob and Israel in a single narrative, or even a single verse.[4] The Jewish people, who carry the name of their exclusive ancestor,[5] are also called both “Jacob” and “Israel.”

Abraham’s name change, which came about when he circumcised himself by command of G-d, marked his elevation from Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“exalted father of the multitudes”). The name Abraham includes all the letters, and meaning, of Abram; the change was the introduction of an additional letter (the letter hei) and role.[6] Thus, to call Abraham “Abram” is to reduce him to his prior self and significance.

On the other hand, Jacob and Israel are two different names, with two different meanings. While it is true that Israel represents a loftier state of being than Jacob (thus the Israel element in Jacob is “no longer Jacob”), there are certain virtues to the Jacob state that the Israel state cannot possess. So Jacob remains a name for both the third Patriarch and for the Jewish people as a whole. Israel might represent a higher stage in the Jew’s development than Jacob, but the greatness of the Jewish people lies in that there are both Jacob Jews and Israel Jews, and Jacob and Israel elements within each individual Jew.

The Spiritual Warrior

One insight into the difference between the Jacob and Israel personalities is offered by Balaam, the pagan prophet who was summoned to curse the Jewish people and ended up mouthing one of the most beautiful odes to Jewish life and destiny contained in the Torah.

In the second of Balaam’s curses-turned-blessings there is a verse in which he proclaims: “[G-d] sees no guilt in Jacob, nor toil in Israel.”[7]

This implies that Jacob does experience toil, though his struggles and difficulties do not result in his guilt in the eyes of G-d. Israel, on the other hand, enjoys a tranquil existence, devoid not only of guilt but also of toil.

The Torah gives us two interpretations of the name Jacob. Jacob was born grasping the heel of his elder twin, Esau; thus he was named “Jacob” (Yaakov, in the Hebrew), which means “at the heel.”[8] Years later, when Jacob disguised himself as Esau to receive the blessings that Isaac intended to give the elder brother, Esau proclaimed: “No wonder he is called Jacob (“cunning”)! Twice he has deceived me: he has taken my birthright,[9] and now he has taken my blessings.”[10]

Jacob is the Jew still in the thick of the battle of life. A battle in which he is often “at the heel”—dealing with the lowliest aspects of his own personality and of his environment. A battle which he must wage with furtiveness and stealth, for he is in enemy territory and must disguise his true intentions in order to outmaneuver those who attempt to ensnare him.[11] Threatened by a hostile world, plagued by his own shortcomings and negative inclinations, the Jacob Jew has yet to transcend the axiomatic condition of his humanity—the fact that “man is born to toil”[12] and that human life is an obstacle course of challenges to one’s integrity.

G-d sees no guilt in Jacob, for despite all that Jacob must face, he has been granted the capacity to meet his every detractor. Even if he momentarily succumbs to some internal or external challenge, he never loses his intrinsic goodness and purity, which ultimately asserts itself, no matter how much it has been repressed by the travails of life. But while he might be free of sin, he is never free of toil, of the struggle to maintain his sinless state. For Jacob, the war of life rages ever on, regardless of how many of its battles he has won.

Israel (“divine master”), on the other hand, is the name given to Jacob when he “has struggled with the divine and with men, and has prevailed.” Israel is the Jew who has prevailed over his own humanity, so completely internalizing the intrinsic perfection of his soul that he is now immune to all challenges and temptations; who has prevailed over the divine decree that “man is born to toil,” carving out for himself a tranquil existence amidst the turbulence of life.

Thus, Jacob is the name reserved for us when we are referred to as G-d’s “servants,”[13] while “Israel” is G-d’s name of choice when He speaks of us as His “children.”[14] The defining element of the servant’s life is his service to his master. The child, too, serves his father, but their relationship is such that his service is not toil but pleasure. What for the servant is work, imposed upon a resisting self and environment, is for the child the harmonious realization of his identity as the extension of his father’s essence.

The first part of Jacob’s life was consumed by his struggles with his brother Esau—a struggle which began in the womb,[15] continued through their contest over the bechorah (firstborn’s birthright) and their father’s blessings, and culminated in Jacob’s all-night battle with the angel of Esau and the brothers’ face-to-face encounter the next day. In the interim, Jacob also spent twenty toil-filled years tending the sheep of Laban “the Deceiver”—years during which “heat consumed me by day and frost at night, and sleep was banished from my eyes,”[16] and he was forced to become Laban’s “brother in deception.”[17] Jacob’s name-change to Israel marked the point at which he graduated from a servant of G-d to G-d’s child, from an existence defined by struggle and strife to a harmonious realization of his relationship with G-d.

Sweet and Sour

Yet even after he was named Israel, Jacob continued to be Jacob as well. The Torah continues to use his old name along with the new. The events of his life now include periods of tranquillity (such as the nine years from his return to the Holy Land from Charan until the sale of Joseph and the seventeen years he lived in Egypt[18]), but also periods of strife (i.e., the 22 years he mourned his beloved Joseph).[19]

As the father of the people of Israel, Jacob was the model for both states of the Jew: the tranquil child of G-d, at peace with himself, his G-d and his society, whose harmonious life is a beacon of light and enlightenment to his surroundings; and the embattled servant of G-d, grappling with his self and character, his relationship with G-d and his place in the world. For the Jacob state is not merely a prerequisite stage toward the attainment of the Israel state, but an end in itself, an indispensable role in the Creator’s blueprint for life on earth.

In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: “There are two types of pleasure before G-d. The first is from the complete abnegation of evil and its transformation from bitterness to sweetness and from darkness to light by the tzaddikim.[20] The second [pleasure] is when evil is repelled while it is still at its strongest and mightiest… through the initiative of the beinonim[21]… The analogy for this is physical food, in which there are two types of delicacies that give pleasure: the first being the pleasure derived from sweet and pleasant foods; and the second, from sharp and sour foods, which are spiced and prepared in such a way that they become delicacies that revive the soul.”[22]

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shevat 10, 5718 (January 31, 1958)[23].

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Genesis 35:10.

[2]. Berachot 13a.

[3]. Genesis 17:5.

[4]. Cf. ibid., 46:2.

[5], Abraham fathered seven additional sons, progenitors of various Semitic nations, in addition to Isaac, from whom the people of Israel are descended; Isaac fathered Esau, ancestor of the Edomites, in addition to Jacob. In contrast, Jacob’s progeny were exclusively Jewish, and his twelve sons fathered the twelve tribes of Israel.

[6]. See The Irremovable ‘R,  Week in Review, vol. VII, no. 7.

[7]. Numbers 23:21.

[8]. Genesis 25:26.

[9]. See ibid. 25:29-34.

[10]. Ibid. 27:36.

[11]. See The Duplicity of the Jew, WIR, vol. IX, no. 9.

[12]. Job 5:7.

[13]. As in the verse, “Hearken to Me, My servant Jacob” (Isaiah 44:1; cf. ibid., 44:2, 45:4, 48:26; Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27-28; et al).

[14]. “My firstborn child, Israel” (Exodus 4:22).

[15]. Genesis 25:22-23; Rashi, ibid.

[16]. Genesis 31:40.

[17]. See Rashi on Genesis 29:12.

[18]. See Baal HaTurim on Genesis 47:1; Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXX, p. 180.

[19]. Cf. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 84:1 (cited in Rashi on Genesis 37:2): “Jacob wished to settle in tranquillity, when it pounced upon him the trouble of Joseph.”

[20]. Perfectly righteous individuals.

[21]. “Intermediates”—Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s term for the “Jacob” personality, who is perpetually engaged in the battle of life.

[22]. Tanya, ch. 27.

[23]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, 795-799.

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