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Dvar Torah (Torah Thoughts): Parshat Vayishlach

This week's Parsha (Torah portion) gives us the first-ever mention of the name "Israel". After Yaakov (Jacob) finishes preparing for his fateful reunion with his brother Esav (Esau), he is attacked by a mysterious man who he manages to defeat. The man turns out to be an angel, who says to Yaakov, “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael (Israel), for you have fought with beings divine and human, and have prevailed" (Bereshit/Genesis 32:29, adapted from the JPS translation).

The name Israel didn't just end up being Jacob's new name (even though the Torah uses both of his names throughout the rest of Bereshit), but also ended up being a name for the Jewish people ("the children of Israel"), a name applied to kingdoms and dynasties in the Holy Land, and nowadays the name of the modern state of Israel.

But why is this name so significant? Doesn't it seem to have a negative meaning, about "fighting with God"? Shouldn't such a significant name be more positive?

Famed Torah commentator Rashi gives a unique answer.

Two Parshas ago, in Parshat Toldot, Yaakov tricked his father Yitzchak (Isaac) into giving him the blessing that was intended for Esav. While Yaakov and his mother Rivka (Rebecca) had very good reasons for wanting Yaakov to get that blessing, Yaakov still had to disguise himself and to pretend to be Esav. But when Yaakov is given the name Yisrael, Rashi says that this indicates, "It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through supplanting and subtlety but through noble conduct (שררה) and in an open manner" (translation via Sefaria). Through his further journeys and through his victory against the angel, Yaakov has truly earned the blessings that he was given in a proper way.

The name Israel isn't about discord. It's about striving towards goals and working to succeed in a noble way, even if that means overcoming difficult challenges. A worthy message as finals week approaches...

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