Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva in the direction of Charan … (Bereishis 27:39- 40)
So began the journey of Ya’akov Avinu, the future father of the 12 Tribes of Israel, from which all Jews would eventually descend. The pretext that sent him into his 36-year exile1 had been Eisav’s plan to kill him after the death of Yitzchak, in revenge for having taken Eisav’s blessings. However, all of that was just a cover-up for the real reason for his mission, and that was to become the person he had to become in order to father the future Jewish people.
In other words, his personal journey was a journey for all of the Jewish people. Whatever he would become he would impart to his sons, who would then bequeath what they received to their descendants, and so on. Whatever Ya’akov Avinu experienced, and however he reacted to it, became part of his psyche, and therefore the basis of the national psyche of the Jewish people, forever. Talk about daily pressure.
That is, up until the Shevatim—the 12 Tribes—were actually born. Once Ya’akov’s sons were born, he could not give over to them what he had experienced, at least not internally, only externally. Ma’aseh Avos siman l’banim—the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children—means that we can study the actions of the Avos, and we can learn from them, but they won’t impact us unless we make a concerted effort to be like them.
Which is too bad, because Ya’akov didn’t complete his mission until after 11 of the 12 tribes had been born. Indeed, perhaps the most important part of his success came after 11 of his sons had already grown up somewhat, making Ya’akov’s success personal to him, and the mission of all of his descendants from that point onward.2
Thus, the Talmud writes:
Anyone who calls Avraham, ‘Avram’ violates a Positive Mitzvah … Rebi Eliezer says, he transgresses a Negative Mitzvah … Having said this, then anyone who calls Ya’akov, ‘Ya’akov,’ the same should apply! However, here it is different, because the verse itself later refers to him that way, as it says, “God called Yisroel in a night vision, and said to him, ‘Ya’akov, Ya’akov’ …” (Bereishis 46:2). (Brochos 13a)
However, what the Talmud does not answer is why God did this. Why was the transformation from Avram to Avraham considered complete, and not the transformation from Ya’akov to Yisroel? It seems as if all that was necessary to become Avraham had been completed by Avraham himself, but not Ya’akov, the implication being that there is still work to be done to complete the process that Ya’akov himself had begun.
In truth, it seems as if Ya’akov Avinu himself completed the transformation, at least for himself, just prior to his death, as the Torah testifies:
Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years. Altogether he lived for 147 years. The day came close for Yisroel to die. (Bereishis 47:28-19)
For Yisroel to die, that is, not Ya’akov, signaling that Ya’akov had left this world not as Ya’akov, but as Yisroel, allowing him to actually avoid death altogether, as the Talmud reveals:
Ya’akov Avinu did not die. (Ta’anis 5b)
But, what of his sons, our ancestors, the 12 Tribes? History has been about our own journey, the completion of Ya’akov’s journey for the rest of the nation. It has been about the rest of the Jewish people living up to thename Yisroel, which has a very different meaning from Ya’akov, as the Torah itself explains:
His brother came out holding onto Eisav’s heel; he named him Ya’akov. (Bereishis 25:26)
He said, “Is that why they called his name ‘Ya’akov’? He has deposed me twice. He took my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing.” (Bereishis 27:36)
Hence, the name Ya’akov implies a follower of Eisav, one who comes on his heels. Furthermore, it implies a trickster in the eyes of the gentile, a perception that has resulted in untold amounts of suffering for the Jewish people throughout history, in spite of our innocence and ability to sit in the tents of Torah.
On the other hand, the name Yisroel means just the opposite:
He told him, “No longer will you be called ‘Ya’akov, but ‘Yisroel, because you have struggled with [an angel of] God, and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereishis 32:29)
To be a Yisroel is to prevail, to lead. However, the angel did not mean that the Jewish people have a tendency to go to war against other nations, and to win. Rather, ultimately, it was talking about prevailing spiritually. The verse is talking about living up to the name of Yisroel, even though the world around us constantly tries to pull us back down to the level of Ya’akov, the twin brother of Eisav. Prevailing means resisting the temptation to be like Eisav, and rising above his world to live in the world of Yisroel.
To fail to do so has a consequence. For, just as there is a choice between being a Ya’akov or a Yisroel, there is a choice between two types of redemption, achishenah — hastened and peaceful — and b’ittah —at the last possible moment, and after the War of Gog and Magog (Sanhedrin 98a). Rising to the level of a Yisroel brings for the former. Remaining on the level of Ya’akov means the latter path.
Hence, the Malbim speaks about such a split personality of the Jewish people at the end of history:
For thus said Hashem: Sing, O Ya’akov, with gladness, exult on the peaks of the nations; announce, laud [God], and say, “O Hashem, save Your people, the remnant of Yisroel!” Behold, I will bring them from the land of the North and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, the pregnant and birthing together; a great congregation will return here. With weeping they will come and through supplications I will bring them; I will guide them on streams of water, on a direct path in which they will not stumble; for I have been a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn. (Yirmiyahu 31:6-8)
At the end of their exile, the oppression will be removed from them, and they will be joyous because they will be on the peak of the nations. The gentiles will give them honor and they will be their heads, instead of being disgraced and lowered amongst them as they were at first. Ya’akov will be the masses of the people, and the lesser amongst them; Yisroel are the great ones. The joyousness from being at the peak of the nations will be Ya’akov’s only, and not Yisroel’s, because they will want to return His Presence to Tzion. However, at that time they will “announce” and publicly proclaim, and “praise” Hashem when they say, “O Hashem, save Your [righteous] people, the remnant of Yisroel,” because they will want the true salvation of the ingathering of the exile and return to Tzion. Then it will be like that, that Hashem will return them: Behold, I will bring them … (Malbim, q.v. v’Tzahalu B’Rosh HaGoyim)
From the Malbim, it seems that to be a Ya’akov, at least at the end of history, is to be concerned primarily about living the comfortable life. Ya’akov may be religious, very religious indeed, but comfortably religious. His idea of redemption is the end to anti-Semitism, and the opportunity to succeed within a foreign nation, without having to look over his shoulder every moment, wondering from where the next knife in the back will come.
To be a Yisroel, explains the Malbim, is to yearn for redemption, and more importantly, the return of the Shechinah to Tzion, as mentioned in the Shemonah Esrai every time. To a Yisroel, the welfare of the Shechinah comes before that of anything else, and he is devoted, as the Zohar says he should be, to its cause. That was Ya’akov Avinu, and that is why he merited to become the first Yisroel, the example for all generations to follow.
In the meantime, the rest of us struggle. We, descendants of Ya’akov Avinu, must fight our own way up from the level of Ya’akov to that of Yisroel. Our own personal redemption depends upon it, as does that of our nation. It’s thousands of years later, but we are, at this time, merely completing the journey our Forefather began a long time ago, one that began in this week’s parsha.
We know how it ended for Ya’akov: he didn’t even have to die. The question that lingers, and more so with each passing today, is, how will it end for us?
1 He spent 14 years in the yeshiva of Shem and Eiver, 20 years with Lavan, and 2 more years to return home, 36 years altogether. This is the number of the Ohr HaGanuz, the Hidden Light of Creation, with which God made Creation, gave the Torah, and performs all miracles, indicating the importance of Ya’akov’s journey in terms of the fulfillment of the purpose of the Jewish people.
2 The only exception might have been Binyamin, who was born on the way back to Eretz Yisroel, and indeed, he is treated differently than the rest of his brothers.
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
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