Different meanings for different name changes


Sefer Bereshis presents three celebrated name changes that were declared by the Almighty or one of His angels. The first two were Avram and Sarai, whose names were changed to Avraham and Sarah.

Midrash Bereshis Rabbah makes it very clear that Avraham’s name change is absolute and universal in nature, to the extent that it is forbidden to call him by his prior appellation. According to our midrash, however, Sarah’s name change is directed solely to Avraham, since the verse reads: “Your wife Sarai — you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name.” In other words, Hashem gave Avraham a clear-cut personal directive to help him understand that his beloved wife was no longer his princess alone (“Sarai”), rather, she was now ready to take her place on the stage of world history as “Sarah.” As the verse states: “I will bless her, and she will become [a mother of] nations; kings of nations will be from her.” (17:16)

Our parasha contains the third divinely decreed name change that narrate Ya’akov’s transition from Ya’akov to Yisrael.

Our midrash asks whether Ya’akov’s name change to Yisrael was similar to his grandfather’s transformation from Avram to Avraham, or was it substantively different? “It has been taught: The name, Ya’akov, has not been uprooted, rather, the name Yisrael is now the essential appellation, whereas, the name, Ya’akov, is now of secondary import. In other words, Ya’akov was his main name, and Yisrael was his additional secondary name.

Ya’akov, unlike Avraham, retains his original name. The only question under debate is whether or not “Ya’akov” remains his essential name, or is it somehow eclipsed by the new name, “Yisrael?”

In my view, the midrash is teaching us a profound lesson regarding Ya’akov’s very nature: henceforth he has a dual persona that is reflected by each of these names. As such, there are periods when he thrives as Ya’akov and lives as “an innocent man, dwelling in tents,” (25:27) and there are times when he must rise to existential challenges and be Yisrael, the one who has “commanding power with [an angel of] G-d and with men.” (32:29)

The Ya’akov persona is illustrated by the prophet Michah when he speaks of him in this manner:

“You (Hashem) shall give the truth of Ya’akov, the loving-kindness of Avraham, which You swore to our forefathers from days of yore.” (Michah 7:20)

In my estimation, Emet l’Ya’akov is only possible when Ya’akov is living a tranquil and introspective existence. Little wonder, then, that the first pasuk of Parashat Vayeshev states: “Ya’akov dwelt (vayeshev) in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.” (37:1) In line with this analysis, Midrash Rabbah, Bereshis 84:3, interprets “vayeshev” as Ya’akov’s manifest desire to dwell serenely (b’shalveh) in the Land of Canaan, the land of his grandfather and father.

May we be zocheh to see the fulfillment of emet l’Ya’akov, and the final words of the Kaddish realized in our time: “May He Who makes peace in His celestial heights make peace in His ultimate compassion for us and for all the Jewish people.” May this take place soon and, in our days, v’chane yihi ratzon.