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The Meaning of the Name "Israel": A Hanukkah Perspective

  • The Meaning of the Name "Israel": A Hanukkah Perspective

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

The famine bore heavily on the land, and when they had consumed the provisions they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, "Go back and buy us a bit of food!" But Judah said to him, "The man adjured us most definitely, saying 'You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.' If you're willing to let our brother go with us, we'll go down and buy food for you, but if you are not willing to let [him] go, we will not go down; the man said to us, 'You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.'"

Israel then said, "Why did you do me this wrong, answering the man['s question], 'Have you yet another brother'?" They answered, "The man questioned us closely about ourselves and our family, saying, 'Is your father still alive? Do you have a brother?' So we answered as required by these questions. How on earth could we have known that he would say, 'Bring your brother down'?" (Genesis 43:1-7)

D'var Torah

I have always assumed that Jacob's name actually changes to Israel during the famous "hip-wrenching" confrontation with the "stranger" in Genesis 32:25-33. However, commentary to these verses in the Stone Edition of the Chumash notes: "The angel did not have the authority to rename Jacob, nor was this name-change to take effect immediately. The angel merely revealed to Jacob what God Himself would do later" (35:10) (The ArtScroll Series, Stone Edition,The Chumash, ed. Nossan Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz [Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1994], p. 176). The implication here is that sometime in the future Jacob's name will become Israel: then it will be Jacob no longer.

The text continues to call him Jacob for three more chapters and in many more episodes, until a similar name-change story appears in Genesis 35:9-12, following the death of Rebekah and her nurse. In this incident, it is God who changes Jacob's name, but this time there is no rationale given for that change: "'Jacob is your name; but Jacob are you called no more, for Israel is your name!' Thus [God] named him Israel" (Genesis 35:10).

According to Ramban and Sforno, here God is telling Jacob that although he will receive the additional name Israel, he will still be called Jacob. And according to R. Bachya, "From that time onward, the name Jacob would be used for matters pertaining to physical and mundane matters, while the name Israel would be used for matters reflecting the spiritual role of the patriarch and his descendants" (ibid, p. 188).

One of the few early references to Jacob as Israel is in Genesis 43:1-7 (see Focal Point). Why is he called Israel in this episode? According to Haamek Davar, Israel is the name given to Jacob when he exhibits his spiritual nature: "In this case he is referred to as Israel, because he offered them [his sons] a teaching for future generations: Whenever Jews are forced to appear before hostile rulers, they should not offer more information than the question requires" (ibid, p. 240).

This week during Hanukkah, we have an opportunity to choose whether to emphasize the Jacob or the Israel aspect as we teach about and celebrate the holiday. The Jacob aspect is more earthy, physical, and mundane and offers ways that we might compete with the materialization of another holiday that takes place on December 25. The Jacob way stresses gifts, parties, and traditional foods, rather than the spiritual aspects of Hanukkah. This does not mean that we should ignore these aspects of celebration; they round out the holiday just as the Jacob aspect helps complete our view of patriarchal history. In fact, it seems that no matter how much rabbis and teachers discourage it, the Jacob approach is the primary way that most Jews celebrate Hanukkah.

I much prefer to focus on the Israel approach to Hanukkah, while including the Jacob way. The Israel approach reminds us of the haftarah portion recited during this holiday: "'Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit-says the God of heaven's hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). In this vein, Hanukkah encourages-and almost begs-us not to imitate the holidays of our neighbors, but to recall that we are celebrating our right not to celebrate as they did and do. Perhaps, as the commentators said of Jacob/Israel, it is not yet time for the latter: being truly Israel and being able to focus on the real meanings of Hanukkah are still just beyond our reach.

But just as Israel peeks through now and then in the text, before returning to be Jacob, we can and should aspire to include more substance and spiritual content, here and there, as our joyful holiday of Hanukkah proceeds.

By the Way

[On the fact that Hanukkah is a holiday of the rededication of the Temple and that there really is no holiday for celebrating the actual dedication.]

This is indeed strange. We have no holiday which celebrates the building of the Temple. We only have a holiday for rebuilding it. In Jewish eyes there is no trick to building. Everybody can build. The key is whether you can rebuild, whether you can constantly pour new meaning and new energy in renewing your relationships. (Joseph Radinsky, Torah Concepts, vol. 2 [Houston, TX: MBS Business Printers, 1985], p. 54)

Your Guide

  1. Check as many of the references to Jacob in the Book of Genesis as you can and compare them with references to Israel. Are any of the Israel references in the Book of Genesis in the "here and now," or do you think they are all ideal and future-oriented?
  2. What part of the State of Israel's being is "Jacob," and what part is "Israel"?
  3. Do you observe Hanukkah more the Jacob way or the Israel way? What is the optimal mix?
  4. Take a look at the Zechariah quote in its context. What would the State of Israel be like today if it were not for its might and its power? What is the ideal mix of might, power, and spirituality for the State of Israel? And what is the ideal mix for Reform Judaism?

Rabbi Eugene H. Levy is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B'nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258