When Yaakov Avinu emerges from his lengthy stay with Lavan and from the trials described in Parashat VaYishlach, he is truly a changed man. The numerous challenges to his Emunah, Bitachon, and spiritual resolve which he endured during this time developed his character as the third of our Avot, preparing him to become the father of the Jewish nation. To formally introduce this role to Yaakov, as is well known, Hashem appears to him through Nevu’ah, informing him of a drastic name change. Yaakov is no longer just Yaakov; he is Yisrael, too, but he is more “Yisrael” than he is “Ya’akov” – “Yisrael Ikar VeYaakov Tafeil,” “‘Yisrael’ is primary, and ‘Yaakov’ is secondary” (Berachot 13a).
Why, though, did Hashem have to give Yaakov a new name just because he was assuming a new responsibility? The Malbim, in his Peirush on the Torah, explains that a name change was warranted because the name Yaakov, as a simple, corporeal title (referring to his ankle), did not serve Yaakov Avinu anymore. As a spiritual giant who proved he could overcome any difficulty Hashem sent him, Yaakov Avinu needed a name that reflected his innate Godliness, a trait that according to the Malbim elevated him to a miraculous spiritual level. Thus, Hashem declared that he would be called Yisrael, a name that testifies to Yaakov Avinu’s true essence. (It should also be noted that the name Yisrael, in addition to including the name of God directly, reflects that he struggled with God and everything that He threw at him, and ultimately triumphed, reaching a seeming level of Godliness.) He may have still been known as Yaakov in his day-to-day affairs (indeed, the name alludes to a physical struggle), but only the name Yisrael genuinely bespoke his greatness. This may explain why the Pasuk transitions from “Lo Yikarei Shimcha Od Yaakov” to “Ki Im Yisrael Yihyeh Shemecha,” “Your name shall not be called Yaakov anymore, but Yisrael will be your name” (BeReishit 35:10) – the change in verb represents a transition in the purpose of Yaakov’s name. Previously, Yaakov’s name was merely a Keri’ah, a label by which he could be called, but now, his name Yisrael truly identifies who he is, because it represents his lofty level of spirituality.
One question still may remain: Why does the negative precede the positive in the Pasuk? Why is Ya’akov Avinu first told that his name is not just Ya’akov, and only after is he informed of his new name? Perhaps it is because as we search for our true identities as Avdei Hashem, we must first recognize who we are not. To fully take advantage of our spiritual potential, we must cast off all perceptions of ourselves that constrain us from doing so. Much like in Yaakov Avinu’s case, our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu depends on our success in merging the material, represented by the name Yaakov, with the spiritual and eternal, as embodied by the name Yisrael. May we be Zochim to discover and harness the Yisrael within each and every one of us.