Today is December 12, 2018 -
In our Torah portion Jacob wrestles and defeats some sort of Divine being, perhaps an angel. After that victory we read (Genesis 32:28-29), “The [Divine being] said: “What is your name?” He replied: “Jacob.” He said: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Yisrael for you have struggled with beings, divine and human, and have prevailed.” Name changes are common in the Bible. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah. Until I read the following comment I did not realize that giving Jacob a new name is unique. “Abraham’s change of name was a mere rhetorical flourish compared to this one, for of all the patriarchs Jacob is the one whose life is entangled in moral ambiguities…It is nevertheless noteworthy – and to my knowledge has not been noted – that the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled. Whereas Abraham is invariably called “Abraham” once the name is changed from “Abram,” the narrative continues to refer to this patriarch in most instances as “Jacob.” Thus “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, Translation and Commentary) Jacob is the most flawed, human, and complex patriarch. In short, the one most like many of the real people we know. I would argue that the Bible’s continued use of two names for him tells us that changing a name and becoming a different person are two separate matters. The former is easy, the latter most difficult. It is a reminder that while Jacob has become a more honest, sincere person, aspects of his deceitful previous self still remain within. Prevailing over our baser instincts is a struggle that we can win, but it takes regular efforts and the victory may never be final. Unlike Abraham, Sarah and Jacob, our own names are not changed by God or God like creatures, but our inner selves can be perfected with constant vigilance.