What’s in a name?

At first glance, a person’s name seems arbitrary and superficial, a title that serves a social function — an external feature that helps others identify you. On the other hand, we have grown attached to the sound of it. Pronouncing the combination of letters catches our attention in the most forceful way. 

These days, when the average person legally changes his or her name, it is usually because they dislike the name given to them at birth or prefer a more unique and attractive title. It is a private, inconsequential act. Names in the Torah are different — they usually carry deep meaning and messages — and even more so when God changes someone’s name and provides a new one.

This first occurred in the Torah portion a few weeks ago wherein Abraham was informed by God that his “name shall no longer be Avram, rather your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:5).” Now, why would God change someone’s name? Was there something wrong with the original name? Does the new name signify some personal achievement?

The commentaries explain that his original name, Avram, was a contraction of Av Aram, “father of Aram,” indicating that he was the guiding light of his native land, Aram. The new name incorporated all the letters of the original, only adding to the name. This expansion signified that he had progressed to a new stage in spiritual leadership. Using his old name would, therefore, be an insult.

But the change wasn’t only symbolic. The enlargement of Avraham’s name also served as a channel for him to receive additional strength and blessings, namely the ability to have children. Using the original name would interfere with the blessing. 

There are also broader practical implications of this narrative. Jewish tradition interprets the verse “Your name shall no longer be called Avraham…” not only as a private instruction to him, but for all generations, as the Talmud (Berachot p.13a) notes: Anyone who refers to the patriarch Avraham by his old name transgresses a Biblical commandment.

Yaakov and Yisrael

This week, in one of the most epic biblical encounters, we find a seemingly identical instruction to change names, yet with different ramifications. After Yaakov (Jacob) wrestles with the mysterious angel, Yaakov is informed that “No longer will your name be called Yaakov; you will now be called Yisrael, for with God and with man you have striven, and you have overcome.”

The latter name eventually refers to the nation born from his descendants — the Jewish people. Throughout the generations, this word has been on the tongue of every Jew when praying and studying Torah, reverberating during the most famous prayer — “Shema Yisrael.” And, of course, it refers to the holy land.

Reading Torah passages in English can be a barrier to appreciating the depth within the verses. The Hebrew language is rich; words have multiple implications. Without knowing the grammatical roots, the rearrangement of letters, and the different meanings, an entire dimension is lost. In this case, the letters of the word Yaakov comprise the word for heel (eikev) reflecting a lower level of spiritual attainment, while Yisrael (sar-El) connotes both godly power and royalty. (Derivations of this regal reference can be found in other languages — Sir, Czar, Caesar, and so forth.) 

Yet, despite the explicit advantage and elevation in this title, the name Yaakov is preserved. In fact, it is the name we commonly use when referring to the three forefathers, “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The obvious query then becomes: Why must Abraham’s previous name be forgotten while Yaakov’s name remains throughout the generations?

One explanation is that these new names served distinct functions: While Avraham fixed a problem inherent in his old name that limited his blessings (mazal), no such deficiency existed in Yaakov. As such, the name Yisrael is not a replacement name — it was simply an additional name.

The power of Hebrew names

The details discussed in these stories provide a glimpse of the function of Hebrew names, which are more than random titles; they reflect the qualities of a person. In fact, the famous sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Meir, used to explain the connection between someone’s Hebrew name and their character traits. 

Furthermore, someone’s Hebrew name strongly influences that person’s experience, serving as a receptacle for spiritual energy and strength. In this vein, the great kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, teaches that if a person has lost consciousness and no other means are helping to revive the person, the Hebrew name should be whispered in the person’s ear — because that combination of letters is connected to their life force. This is also one of the reasons why, when someone is critically ill, there is a custom to provide an additional Hebrew name.

Well then, one might wonder, what happens if I was given a bad name? There are two answers to this. First, the Talmud relates that although one’s name has influence, it does not override free choice. Secondly, when choosing a name for their child, all parents are granted a flash of prophecy enabling them to match the Hebrew name with that newborn soul. And even when a parent has a clear reason in mind (e.g. calling after a deceased relative), this does not exclude a parallel hidden purpose in the Hebrew name.]

One people, two titles

Returning to our Torah portion, the impact of providing the additional name Yisrael to our forefather — while retaining the original name — impacted the entire Jewish nation in a much more profound way: The event introduced the phenomenon of “collective names.” The entire Jewish nation is referred to throughout scripture as both Yaakov and Yisrael.

And just as individual names reflect and influence a person’s traits, so do these collective names. Yaakov, from the word eikev, meaning “heel,” can also mean “to trick” or deceive. The word Yisrael, connoting royalty, when rearranged forms “li rosh,” “my head.” In a mystical context, these two Hebrew words do not refer to our forefather, but rather convey two distinct dimensions of every soul, as well as two stages in the life, where an individual begins on the level of Yaakov and grows to discover Yisrael.

The lower aspect of the soul, its “heel,” is represented by the name Yaakov. Just as the person Yaakov was forced to descend from the spiritual comfort of the holy land into the darkness of Haran (the Sin City), to toil there for years while dealing with shady characters like his uncle Lavan, so too the lower dimension of the soul (i.e. nefesh) is thrust into a foreign environment as it arrives into and animates the physical body. Initially, only a ray of light from the higher soul works through the consciousness — creating our perceptions and feelings.

At the same time, there is an exalted layer of the soul — a divine spark beyond tangible experience—that is not readily realized. This is the “head” of the soul, called Yisrael. As we mature, our task is to tap into this superior level of “Yisrael” and let it shine through our entire being. From a different angle, Yaakov serves as our baseline personality and self-centered motivations, while Yisrael expresses our powerful essence. Ideally, an individual moves from the struggles of Yaakov and progresses toward the inspiration of Yisrael.

Even in this context, the principle of retaining both titles applies: While Yisrael is a loftier spiritual experience, there is also a benefit to maintaining the level of Yaakov. Simply put, our deepest aspirations and internal resources must be compatible with (not removed from or contradicting) our conscious thinking, emotions, and external actions. In this sense, these two names work together: Yisrael comes to infuse our daily deeds with more power and purpose; Yaakov transmits the light of Yisrael (the higher soul) within the confines of this world.

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