Jacob's name change in this week's Torah portion encourages us to examine the different names and roles we assume throughout our lives and the meaning each represents.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob is nervous about his imminent reunion with his brother, Esau, after many years of separation. He returns home as a successful man with a large family and material possessions. However, coming home also means facing his mistakes. He lied to his father, cheated his brother and ran for his life. He must now come to terms with the consequences of his earlier actions.
The evening before his meeting with his brother, we read that Jacob is left alone and a man wrestled with him. When the one wrestling with Jacob saw that it was impossible to win, he said, “Let me go for day is breaking.” But Jacob responded, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The wrestler said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
Much has been written about the mysterious figure that Jacob wrestled with. Was he wrestling a human or an angel? Was he struggling with his conscience or past misdeeds? There is no clear answer, but we do know that in the end, Jacob receives the blessing of a new name. People change their names for many reasons.
Some people take a new name when they get married; others do it to demonstrate a deeper religious commitment or to reflect a new gender identity. New names symbolize significant internal changes and carry great meaning. They tell the world who we are, where we come from and sometimes what we hope for.
Rashi, the great biblical scholar, in commenting on Jacob’s name change, teaches: “We have no permanent name. Our name changes, according to the service we are commanded [to do] in the mission upon which we are sent.” We each have many names that reflect the different aspects of ourselves.
Each person in our lives knows us in a different way and by a different name — mother, daughter, spouse, friend, rabbi. I am different when I am with my daughter than I am when leading services; I’m different sitting at a hospital bedside than when I’m laughing with friends. With each new person and situation, a new part of me is called into being.
Many of us have a special Jewish name in either Hebrew or Yiddish. It is the name we use in synagogue, in rituals, or when we travel to Israel. It is the tradition among Ashkenazi Jews to name a baby after a deceased relative, so that the child carries that person’s memory into the future, linking the generations.
A teaching from the midrash expands this idea: “In life, you discover that people are called by three names: One is the name the person is called by their parents. One is the name people call them, and one is the name they acquire for themselves. The best one is the name they acquire for themselves.”
At the end of his struggle, Jacob emerges with a new name, one that he has “acquired for himself” through hard work. He has earned a new name by facing his past and reconciling with the ones he has hurt. He will be called Israel, a name that reflects all he has learned and represents a future filled with possibility.
Like Jacob/Israel, we each have different names by which we are known. Which ones reflect our past and which ones our future? And which names do we still hope to be called?
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is director of Jewish Community Services for Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.