You are here

A Name Change With a Difference

Two of our three forefathers had their names changed, but only one was permanent.

The Gemara says that it is forbidden to call Avraham “Avram,” because the possuk says, “No longer will your name be called Avram.” If so, asks the Gemara, we should not be allowed to use the name “Yaakov,” because the possuk says, “No longer will your name be called Yaakov, rather Yisroel”? The Gemara explains that Yaakov is different, because the Torah itself uses that name later on.

However, the fact that the Torah continues to use the name Yaakov is just a proof that there is no prohibition. What, indeed, is the reason for this difference? Why did Avram become obsolete while Yaakov did not?

The answer is that the spiritual significance of both of Yaakov’s names are relevant today. Unlike Avraham, which completely replaced the name Avram, both Yaakov and Yisroel are necessary in our avodas Hashem.

When Hashem switched Yaakov’s name to Yisroel, He was saying that the avodah of Yaakov alone is not enough, and the higher level of Yisroel is required as well. This did not negate Yaakov but rather added to it.

A Lesson in Deception

What is the difference between Yaakov and Yisroel?

Rashi explains that Yaakov means trickery while Yisroel means authority. This is the reason his name was changed: “No longer will it be said that you received the berachos with trickery and deceit, rather authoritatively and openly.”

Why indeed did Yaakov employ trickery to receive the berachos? This serves as a general lesson to us, teaching us that we must approach gashmiyus with “deceit.”

What is deceit? Deceit means that you pretend you are one person when really you are someone else. Take a spy, for example. His goal is to extract confidential information from another group. To do so, he mingles with his opponents and befriends them. On the outside it appears as if he is one of them, when in reality he is there to uncover their secrets.

This is how we must approach gashmiyus. Inherently, a Jew has nothing to do with gashmiyus. Our “home” is ruchniyus—learning Torah, davening, and doing mitzvos. When we do get involved in gashmiyus, on the outside it seems that we “belong.” However, in truth we have an inner objective: We wish to uncover the “secrets” hidden in gashmiyus, the sparks of holiness concealed within.

The possuk describes desert travelers as “hungry and thirsty, their souls are weak (tis’ataf) within them.” This possuk, explains the Baal Shem Tov, gives insight into why we become hungry and thirsty. There is a “soul” wrapped up (tis’ataf) within the food and drink. Our neshamah wants to elevate these hidden sparks, and that is why Hashem makes us hungry.

This is the inner reason why we eat, drink, and are involved in commerce. Externally, however, our material pursuits seem to be just like those of a non-Jew. We are expert tricksters: We pretend to be like everyone else, making them think we have gashmiyus in mind, when in reality our focus is lesheim shamayim!

In this way, we are like Yaakov. Yaakov’s true self was a yeshiva student, preoccupied with Torah in the study halls of Shem and Ever. When it came time for him to deal with gashmiyus—to receive berachos consisting of material abundance—he needed to disguise himself as Esav. Moreover, Esav’s clothing first belonged to Nimrod, who rebelled against Hashem. What does Yaakov have in common with such clothing? Absolutely nothing! Yet, Yaakov “deceptively” donned these garments, all in order to extract the kedushah hidden in gashmiyus.

Out in the Open

This approach to gashmiyus is reflected in the name Yaakov, trickery. Yisroel, however, represents a higher approach, in which there is no need to fool anyone: Our gashmiyus is connected to kedushah openly, for all to see.

The reason Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisroel was “because you have mastered over men and angels (Elokim) and have succeeded.”

Elokim is the name of Hashem associated with concealment, where gashmiyus conceals Elokus. From this perspective, in order to connect gashmiyus to kedushah, we must employ deceit. Essentially, however, a Jew is above and beyond such obstructions, and there is nothing to hide.

These two approaches reflect the difference between the weekdays and Shabbos.

During the week, eating is not a mitzvah. To the contrary, if we are not careful, it has the potential to spiritually desensitize us. When involved in gashmiyus, we are “fooling” everyone, doing a non-holy activity for a holy purpose—to give us energy to daven and learn.

Shabbos is different. On Shabbos, the world is higher and more refined, and a deeper level of our neshamah is revealed. Therefore, it is a mitzvah to enjoy tasty foods and fine drinks, just as it is a mitzvah to wear tefillin. Gashmiyus is openly connected to kedushah.

During the week we are Yaakov, a name related to eikev, heel. A lower dimension of our neshamah—its “heel”—is at play. Gashmiyus is therefore perceived as a contradiction to kedushah, and we must fight it, just as Yaakov fought with Esav’s angel.

By contrast, on Shabbos we are Yisroel, which includes the same letters as rosh, head. We are privy to a deeper level of our neshamah (its “head”), rising to a level where nothing conceals Elokus. We are like Yaakov after he mastered the angel; there is no need to fight, as the gashmiyus itself is a mitzvah.

The Yaakov-Yisroel Cycle

These two types of avodah—the weekday Yaakov and the Shabbos Yisroel—are intertwined.

In order to reach the level of Shabbos, in which gashmiyus itself is holy, we must first toil throughout the week to do our physical activities lesheim shamayim. Conversely, being on a higher level on Shabbos empowers us to go out during the week and interact with the world in the right way.

This is one of the reasons we say on Motzoei Shabbos the piyut Al tira avdi Yaakov” (Do not fear, My servant Yaakov). (Although this piyut is not part of our nusach, Chassidus explains a number of customs and liturgies that are not nusach Chabad.)

On Shabbos we are Yisroel. We have an extra neshamah, and we look at the world in a different light. The day is filled with davening and learning; even when we eat and drink, that is a mitzvah too.

But then Shabbos comes to a close. Our neshamah yeseirah leaves us, and we are faced with yet another week, in which we are Yaakov once again, forced to deal with gashmiyus. We might therefore be afraid to go out to the world, a world that conceals Elokus.

We therefore say, “Do not fear, Yaakov!” Shabbos gives us the power to enter the week full of spiritual energy, ready to delve into gashmiyus with the right intent, lesheim shamayim and not for personal pleasure. And so it continues, with each week preparing for Shabbos and each Shabbos influencing the following week, spurring us to ever higher levels of Yaakov and Yisroel.

This is why both names of Yaakov and Yisroel are in use today. We must apply both methods in our avodas Hashem, at times battling with and deceiving gashmiyus, and at times being on a level where nothing obstructs us and gashmiyus itself is holy.

For further study, see Likkutei Sichos, vol. 3, pp. 795–799.