Is a name just a name, or is it something more? In Judaism, names take on profound significance, with kabbalistic sources teaching that a person’s name is a reflection of his or her soul and its unique mission on earth. This suggests that parents experience a kind of prophetic inspiration when choosing the name of their child.
In this week’s parashah, our forefather Jacob is given a new name, which becomes the name of our illustrious nation: Israel. What does “Israel” mean? The Torah proclaims that Jacob will be called Israel because “you strove with men and angels (alternatively, God) and prevailed.” The Hebrew root of the word “Israel,” sar, means to strive or rule over. There are several additional definitions, all of which reflect ideas connected with striving and transcendence.
Why, then, was Israel not Jacob’s name to begin with? In fact, the meaning of the name Jacob seems to be the diametric opposite of Israel. Jacob, or Ya’akov in Hebrew, is constructed from the Hebrew word for “heel,” and expresses the idea of drawing the divine into one’s mundane, earthly existence. Israel, on the other hand, contains letters that form the Hebrew word for “head,” and connotes elevation, transcendence and striving.
Jacob wasn’t born with the name Israel because Israel is something you have to strive for. To make the most of what you have is something that is naturally inherent within us from the start, but to transcend one’s nature and rise above it is an altogether different level of consciousness. It is not something you can simply be born into. It’s something you have to embrace, a journey you have to embark upon – something like the spiritual and historic experience of our nation as a whole. Given that we are, as a people, called Israel, means that we each have this potential within us. It is up to us to realize it and activate it.