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What is the Difference between Yaakov and Yisrael?

From the initial verse of the Torah, “In the beginning …,” we are introduced to God’s divine will. In fact according to our teacher and Torah scholar Rashi, the entire Torah is a study of just one aspect of His will. That aspect is God’s divine plan to create the nation of Israel living in the land of Israel. The text of the Torah contains the entire written record of this process. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayechi, brings to conclusion the manifestation of God’s divine plan during the formative stages in the lives of our Patriarchs.

One result of God’s divine plan that we notice from an analysis some of the people and events depicted throughout the Book of Genesis is the dual representation of the Jewish people. On the one hand they are known as Bnei Yaakov, the Children of Jacob. On the other hand, they are also known as Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel. These two terms derive from the two names by which the third patriarch was known, Jacob and Israel.

An important question was rightly posed by Morah Levin’s 9th grade Chumash class, a few years ago, when they commenced their study of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus. Upon noticing the opening text of Exodus her students asked the simple and obvious question. When is Jacob called Yaakov and when is he called Yisrael? So too, when are his children called Bnei Yaakov and when are they called Bnei Yisrael? While there are many answers to this question, the one that resonates most with me comes from a compilation of lectures by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik called, “Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses,” by Ktav Publishing House.   In his explanation of the two names, Rabbi Soloveitchik refers us to the comments of another Torah giant and luminary, Nachmanides (see his comments on Genesis 35:10 and 46:2).

The patriarch Jacob was not always an independent individual. He was often subjected to or subordinate to the domination of another person. His relationship with both his brother Esau and his father-in-law, Lavan, were characterized by this personality trait. During the 20 years Jacob spent with Lavan, he was like a bondsman. His birth name, “Yaakov,” signifies holding or grabbing onto, being pulled along or dependence upon as the Torah states, “And after that (the birth of Esau) his brother came out, his hand grasping the heel of Esau, and he (Isaac) called his name Jacob.” Such a person is not totally free to determine their own future or destiny. Rabbi Soloveitchik rightly points out that during the 17 years he lived in Egypt, the Torah refers to him as Yaakov.

The name “Israel” on the other hand refers to that same person now free of the subservience he endured be it in the form of physical, political, economic or psychological domination. In that life altering struggle Yaakov had the night before meeting Esau, the angel of God changes his name to “Yisrael.” The Torah states the reason for this name change saying, “No longer will your name be called Yaakov but Yisrael, since you have striven with the Divine and with man and have prevailed.” The name Yisrael thus indicates an independence and power of will and action. This character trait was now added to the personality of Yaakov rather than replace the trait that was already part of his personality. This trait accounts for Yaakov’s new found dignity, honor and majesty.

These dual characteristics existed in the children of Yaakov as well. Having to admit their economic plight and reliance on the goodwill of a host nation to sustain them in a time of famine, the sons placed all of Yaakov’s family in a situation of subservience and domination by the Egyptians. The Torah rightly refers to them as Bnei Yaakov. At other times Yaakov’s children acted powerfully taking decisive steps. They saved their raped and kidnapped sister, Dina, from the prison of a royal family. Then they meted out justice on the society that failed to act in her rightful defense. Their self-reliance and freedom to act as an independent entity was on display for all to see. The sons were then a personification of the concept “Yisrael” and would properly be called Bnai Yisrael.

Over our long history as a people, Jews have exhibited both of these characteristics. True during much of the time Jews were subservient to other military forces and political powers. Jews were constrained to live in ghettos, shunned from mainstream society in both Christian and Muslim ruled countries. Yet at the same time Jews managed to distinguish themselves as Bnei Yisrael in arenas that were open to them. At times it was in finance and commerce. At other times it was in the academic arenas of literature, science and philosophy. The indigenous art and music were also enhanced by the creative spirit of Jews wherever they lived. When allowed, Jews also distinguished themselves as valued advisors to the ruling families. Numerous countries of the diaspora prospered from the sage guidance of Jews. Most if not all of these countries suffered serious down turns after their Jewish populous was expelled. In these accomplishments we all take pride as Bnei Yisrael.

Today as then, the Jewish people, despite being scattered throughout the world, cast this dual personality. The independent, entrepreneurial spirit, the “Yisrael” factor, has contributed in large part to the flourishing of many successful Jewish businessmen and women, founders, CEO’s, and leaders of modern national and international corporations. The current pioneering spirit of the Jewish character is particularly visible in the fields of science and medicine. An astounding, overwhelming number of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews. The number of winners is far out of line given the percentage of Jews making up the entire world population. 

Today the political arena is no less affected by Jews. Jews actively participate in the American democratic system not only as voters but as government officials as well. Just a few election cycles ago, a Jewish senator was nominated for and ran as the vice presidential candidate of a major American political party.

But nowhere are the dual traits of Yaakov and Yisrael more recognizable than in our own modern country of Israel. May I suggest reading “Start-up Nation,” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Israel, embodying the name of our patriarch, is a place where Jews can live freely and proudly without fear of displaying their Jewishness. They are the leaders of a country recognized by a majority of the world’s family of nations. However, at the same time they are in many ways dependent on the largess of other nations. Where, when and how to show deference or submission from time to time on certain policy decisions to a more dominant nation is no less an important trait to use. As evidenced by the actions of our father Jacob, both traits are to be used in service of bringing about God’s divine plan. Surely, there is a fine balance to be struck by Israel’s current leaders in the exercise of these two traits.

 May Hashem, whose divine plan we seek to implement, give our leaders in Israel the wisdom to make the decisions that will safeguard the lives of Jews living in Israel and throughout the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan