We can all imagine the scene.
We Jews always seem to be struggling, be it the Arab – Israeli conflict, the United Nations, anti-Semitism, between ourselves, with ourselves; we are constantly battling to remain on top, to beat our adversaries. When in history have we ever had it easy? When were we ever able to be off our guard - to relax? We seem conditioned to struggle, to fight, ever ready to move. We might as well admit it: although the battle is usually forced upon us, we Jews are also a very ambitious people. Yes, we may laugh at ourselves, but if we look back far enough we will see that this is where the name Israel came from.
As Jacob lay sleeping in what was to become Beth-el God spoke to him for the first time: “I will give the land on which you are lying to you and your children, and your children will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. And through you and your children all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Compare this to the first time God spoke to Abraham and Isaac. To Abraham He says: “And I will make a great nation of you and I will bless you, and make your name great and you should be a blessing” (12:2). To Isaac, He refers directly to the oath that He made with Abraham promising him that he would become a great nation, “And I will establish the oath which I swore to Abraham your father” (26:3). So why is there is no promise to Jacob here that he would become a “great nation”?
There are also striking differences between Abraham and Jacob concerning the changes to their names. Firstly, Abraham had his name changed before he had children whereas Jacob had already had most of his children by the time he is referred to as Israel. Secondly, once the change is made, Abraham is never again referred to as Abram whereas almost immediately after God tells Jacob that his name “shall no longer be Jacob” the Torah refers to him as Jacob again.
Abraham was a trailblazer. He started the greatest revolution known to man – monotheism. Jacob, however, was charged with the responsibility to continue on a path that was set out for him. God made it clear that Isaac would be Abraham’s successor and not Ishmael but this line of succession was by no means as clear with regard to Jacob. Isaac wanted Esau to get the blessings, seemingly intending that he, rather than Jacob, would carry on his legacy. If Jacob was to become the next link in the chain he would have to earn it.
This is why the first time God appeared to Jacob he made no mention of a great nation descending from him. However once he had stood the test of living in the house of his swindling and idol-worshipping uncle Laban, and had overcome Esau’s evil designs on him, Jacob’s name was changed and he received a blessing assuring prestige and illustriousness to his descendents: “A nation and a congregation of nations shall descend from you and kings shall issue from your loins.” (39:11)
Jacob’s new name symbolised his life until that point. The angel who wrestled with Jacob told him to change his name to Israel because, “You have striven with the Divine and man and have overcome” (32:28). Jacob knew from the outset that the privilege of being Abraham’s and Isaac’s successor would not be his of right - he would have to fight to achieve it. The struggle was on two levels. Firstly he had to get the birthright and the blessings and then he had to prove to God that he was worthy of them. Jacob wrestled with both God - through the angel - and with man – Esau, and won. It proved worthwhile. Not only did he win the right to follow in the continuum of Abraham and Isaac, but a medal was also bestowed upon him: he was given the name Israel – a name that signifies winning the struggle.
However, unlike Abraham who after God changed his name was never called by his old name again, Jacob was not called exclusively by his new name. Although he had won a major part of the struggle and had achieved his main objective, he did not stop battling against the forces of darkness and evil, and so the old name was still applicable.
Reb Natan from Minsk - who at the age of 87 decided to return to Judaism - told me the following story. In a small town in Russia the shoemaker used to work late into the night. When he was asked why he worked so late he answered, “As long as there is oil and a flame there is still time to fix shoes.” Said Reb Natan, “Similarly I. As long as I am still alive I must repent.”
Our sages tell us that the lives of our forefathers are a lesson for us. From Jacob we see two things: the battle is worth fighting and - it is never over. We must constantly battle our way through the falsehoods of this world to try and make it a better and holier place, and with each battle won we prepare to fight the next. Yes, the struggle is in our blood and this may sometimes have its humorous side. The good thing about it is that if the cause is a worthy one, the one who constantly struggles constantly wins.