The understood meaning of Jacob’s name in the world is he who supplants, undermines, the heel. Yet that is an unusual understanding as that definition comes from the lips of a man who hated Jacob. “Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: “(Genesis 27:36) .
Yet that is not the reason Jacob or Yaacov was given his name. At the birth of Esau and Jacob we read “After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob”( ibid 25:26). To understand the underlying meaning of this one must explore the essence of Jacob’s life journey.
We read in the Torah portion of VaYishlach
And he said to him, what is your name? And he said, Yaacov (Jacob),. And he said, No longer will you be called Yaacov (Jacob), but rather Israel; for you have struggled along with God and with men, and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:28-29)
Then we read the following when G-d appears to Yaacov again.
“And G-d said to him, your name is Yaacov (Jacob); no longer shall you be called Yaacov, but Israel shall be your name; and He called his name Israel. (Genesis 35:10)
Yet throughout the Torah and the Tanach, these two names will continue to play out in the life of Jacob and in the lives of his descendants.
This is so radically different from what we know of Avraham ;”No longer will you be called Avram; your name will be Avraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”(Genesis 17:5). It seems that with Avraham the name change created within him a new entity. Yaacov on the other hand was going to embody both aspects of existence ensconced by both of his names.(Meshech Chochma Genesis 35:10.).
Our sages struggled to uncover the meaning behind both names.
Rabeinu Bachya explained that Yaacov is the name indicating physicality, while Israel is a name that is related more to the spiritual. Rashi explains that the name Yaacov indicates a “lowered status in exile”, while the name Israel indicates “courage and victory related to destiny”. The Meshech Chochma explains that the name Yaacov relates to the physical reality of this individual and of his descendants. The name Israel relates to their spiritual destiny and purpose.
“Yaacov” can then be understood as his name as he struggles through the long voyage of exile and return. It is not intended to be a name connoting weakness or brokenness. Yet it is a name of an individual and a people who will faithfully and courageously manage a journey through treacherous paths and unfriendly waters.
That is the true difference between the name given to Yaacov and that given to Esav ( Esau). The name “Esav” comes from the Hebrew root Asui (done). That is to say Esav lives in the here and now. That is all that is important in his life. “And Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint.. Esau replied, “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?”… and Esau despised the birthright.( Genesis 25:30-34).
On the other hand the name Yaacov comes from the Hebrew root LeAkov (to take step after step). Yaacov represented a spiritual strength and ability to trod forward and continue in spite of all obstacles his life journey.
It is a journey that will compel the children of Yaacov to learn to depend on their G-d above. “For the conductor, a song of David. May Hashem answer you on a day of distress; may the name of the G-d of Yaacov fortify you. May He send your aid from His sanctuary, and may He support you from Zion. (Psalm 20:1-3)
It is in that journey that the world will marvel at the miraculous survival of these descendants of Jacob. Their stubborn walk forward , step by step will cause even people like Balaam to exclaim “He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship” (Numbers 23:21).
In the midst of that courageous step by step walk , the evil prophet will be forced to exclaim as well “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!“(Numbers 24:5). The tents representing the fragile nomadic existence of this people while the dwelling places representing the prophetically fulfilled permanent abode.
It is only due to the strength and tenacity represented by the name Yaakov that we will truly achieve the destiny declared by the name Israel
The result of that tenacious faith and stubborn survival will earn them the name of Israel for eternity;
“And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled along with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)