The patriarch had two names – Jacob and Israel. After his all-night wrestle with the unnamed assailant, the name Jacob was replaced by Israel. Yet with this week’s portion we find “Jacob” back again: “Vay’chi Ya’akov”, “And Jacob lived”. Why does the text come back to the old name?
We find a clue in the nature of the names. “Jacob” derives from his relationship with Esau; “Israel” is because of his relationship with God. The years were not kind to the patriarch. Every stage of his life brought its problems. Sometimes it was with people, sometimes with God.
The patriarch who came to end his days in Egypt was moved more by earthly considerations (Jacob) than with heavenly matters (Israel). Only in Egypt would the family fortunes and dynamic be restored, but that was not destined to last.
Peaceful re-settlement in Egypt with his family around him soon gave way (see next week’s sidra) to enslavement. That hard time needed God’s intervention in order to save the extended family from bondage and to enable them to start a new life of freedom.
With God back in the story, Jacob’s family became the Children of Israel.
THE OLD MAN’S ANECDOTAGE.
Lying on his deathbed, Jacob’s mind flashes back overt the joys and sorrows of his long life. He slows down and focusses on each of his children in turn. He knows each one’s good and bad points.
He summons the energy to get them all to his bedside for a final message. His mind is clearer than it possibly has been for some time and he wants to impart a message to each child and to foretell their future.
But then, as the rabbinic commentators point out, something stops him. He wants to be a prophet, but the gift of prophecy deserts him. It is God who has intervened, because it is better that the children should not know what Jacob wants to tell them.
They need to find their own way in life, to face their own problems, to create their own future. Not just because no-one should try to be immune to life’s struggles, but because if you know what the future will hold you will lose your nerve.
If the future is going to be bleak, why should you exert yourself? You can’t make a difference.
If the future is due to be good, why shouldn’t you indulge your appetites and sin right, left and centre? None of this will be forfeited!
It’s better for a human being to be unaware of what lies around the corner.
Jacob the patriarch gives a personal message to each of his children, summing up their character and hinting at their future.
As we would expect, Joseph receives the most extensive blessing. This is why Jacob uses the singular when, speaking to Joseph, he refers to himself as “thy father”. He says,
“The blessings of thy father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors… They shall be on the head of Joseph” (Gen. 49:26).
In case we thought Jacob is saying that blessings bestowed by him upon his children are more valuable than those bestowed by Abraham and Isaac, Rashi explains that “the blessings of thy father” mean “the blessings thy father has received”.
Abraham, says Rashi, was merely promised the land of Israel (Gen. 13:15). Isaac was promised a broader territory, “all these lands” (Gen. 26:3). Jacob himself was told, “You shall spread abroad to the west, the east, the north and the south” (Gen. 28:14), i.e. all four corners of the earth.
The word translated “spread abroad” is “ufaratzta”, which can be understood spiritually and culturally, in the sense of conveying a message wherever one goes.
Thus Hermann Adler wrote that the Jew, the descendant of Jacob,
“has gone up and down the earth proclaiming his belief in the One Supreme Being – a Being whose spirit fills all time and all space, a Being never embodied, but made manifest to man in the glory of the creation and in His all-wise behests, which teach mercy, love, and justice…”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com