The Necessity of a Name by Rabbi Joel Grossman


In Parashat VaYishlach, after Ya’akov’s encounter with an angel, he is told that his name will be changed from Ya’akov to Yisrael, since Ya’akov had successfully fought with an angel of Hashem as well as with men (BeReishit 32:29). In his Darash Moshe, Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that this was the first of two times in which Ya’akov was informed about the changing of his name, the second time occurring three Perakim later (35:10) when Hashem tells Ya’akov that he will now be called Yisrael. Why is it that the angel gives Ya’akov a clear reason as to why his name is being changed, but Hashem does not give any reason at all?

Rav Moshe explains that there are two different types of challenges that a person has. The first type of challenge is an inner struggle between oneself and his Yeitzer HaRa, his evil inclination. Hashem instills within us this Yeitzer HaRa so that we will constantly have an inner desire to violate the Torah. By giving us this constant struggle, Hashem is granting us free will and the ability to overcome these inner struggles in order to ultimately receive a portion in Olam HaBa, the next world. The second type of struggle that we constantly face is the struggle between the Jewish people as a whole and those who want to stop us from following the Torah. In every generation, there are people who want to stop the Jews from following the Torah, and it is our job to overcome these people and follow in the ways of the Torah. When the angel changes Ya’akov’s name to Yisrael, he explains that Ya’akov has defeated both the angel of Hashem as well as men. Rav Moshe explains that the defeat of the angel of Hashem represents Ya’akov’s constant defeat of his God-given Yeitzer HaRa, and the defeat of men represents Ya’akov’s defeat of those who attempt to remove him from the ways of the Torah. Therefore, the angel has to give a reason for changing Ya’akov’s name. However, when Hashem changes Ya’akov’s name to Yisrael, He is not concerned about what Ya’akov had accomplished in the past, but rather what would happen in the future. He is elaborating on what the angel had said by promising to Ya’akov that in the future, there will always be people who defeat their Yeitzer HaRa and their physical enemies. Therefore, He does not have to give another reason for why He was changing Ya’akov’s name.

By changing Ya’akov’s name to Yisrael, Hashem is promising Ya’akov that in every generation, any Jew will be able to overcome both his inner struggles as well as his external struggles. This is supported by the Gemara (Ta’anit 5b) which states that Ya’akov never died, because he lives in his children and in all future generations which continue to follow in his ways. If any Jew can overcome his inner and outer struggles, then he is effectively continuing the life of Ya’akov Avinu.

The Gemara (Berachot 28b) relates that when Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai was on his death bed, his students came to visit him for one last time. Upon seeing his students, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai began to cry. His students did not understand why he was afraid to die, for he would surely go to Olam HaBa. He explained to his students why he was crying, and then he gave them a Berachah that they should fear Hashem as much as they fear people. He explained that there are times when people sin because no person is watching them. However, we must all constantly overcome our Yeitzer HaRa, whether or not there are other people watching us.

In addition to constantly being aware that Hashem is with us, we must also associate with good people who will keep us far away from sin. As Rashi (BeMidbar 16:1 s.v VeDatan VaAviram) explains, “Woe to the wicked and woe to the neighbor,” meaning that if somebody associates with bad people, then the bad people will influence him to follow in their wicked ways. We should associate ourselves with good people who influence us to do Hashem’s will. By doing so, we illustrate Ya’akov’s eternal legacy, for he lives on through us. If we do so, then we can surely say that Ya’akov was deserving of the name Yisrael.

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