What’s in a name? Does it matter if you are Mike, or Steve, or Jen, or Yankel, or Tim? Are these just combinations of letters that we put together as creative ways to call your attention? Or is it something deeper? Does your name capture your essence and affect or reflect who you are on the inside?
Judaism teaches that a person’s name has deep significance to their personalities and struggles. When we study the different Torah personalities we pay close attention to their name. We analyze their name to extract deeper understandings of their personality traits to help us really clarify what is the message they are teaching us. Throughout the Torah, we find characters being referred to by multiple names, and often changing their names as their life missions change or become more refined.
Perhaps the most significant name change in the Torah is the when our forefather Yaakov received a new name, Yisroel. This was more than a personal name change, this new name would become the identity of the Jewish people. Am Yisroel. Klal Yisroel. Bnei Yisroel. Shema Yisroel!
To understand this name, and the powerful message that it carries, we need to take a look back at the events that brought about this name change. The root of the name Yisroel take us back the night of that epic wrestling match between our father Jacob and an unidentified and quite unusual opponent, the night before he is to reencounter his brother Esav, coming to settle the score. The Torah describes the encounter.
Jacob remained alone (levado), and a man (Ish) wrestled with him until daybreak. (Bereisheet 32:25)
Now, wait a second… If Jacob was alone, who was he wrestling with? And why does the Torah tell us that “a man” wrestled with him without telling us who?
And more puzzling yet, is the fact that we have just been reading about how Yaakov is preparing to battle his brother Esav. Esav is on the way over and he has got 400 armed men with him. Make no mistake, this is not the welcoming committee or a surprise birthday party for Yaakov. Esav is coming to settle some unfinished business. Yaakov prepares for the worst. He divides the camp (military strategy), sends gifts (hoping for peace), prays, etc. But the faceoff never comes. Instead we read about the all night wrestling match, and the next day, when the long anticipated encounter happens, we find a seemingly pleasant Esav. What happened?
The commentaries go on to teach us the tradition that this adversary was the guardian angel of Jacob's twin brother, Esav. Because Jacob was within hours of a potentially fatal faceoff with his brother, who had sworn to kill him years back, it was necessary to first defeat Esav on a spiritual level in order to survive the physical encounter.
The Torah says that Jacob was left alone because, in fact, this spiritual struggle didn't involve anything or anyone outside of Jacob himself. It was the ultimate spiritual struggle against all of the negative influences that might have aggregated inside of him after so many years exiled in the house of his evil father-in-law, Lavan. He was wrestling the guardian angel of Esav that was residing inside of him.
The Torah is teaching us a lesson both for our own personal struggles as well as the struglles of the Jewish people as a whole. One can't defeat the external enemies without realizing that the main struggle lies within. The Jewish people cannot defeat our external enemies if we can't confront our inner struggles.
The world stands idly by as those who hate us swear and plot to wipe us off the map. But our real enemy lies with the negative influences that have crept inside of us and have harmed us from within. If we are willing to stand up and wrestle our inner enemy, the enemy of disunity, the enemy of assimilation, then we can be sure that, like Jacob our forefather, we will emerge victorious on the physical battlefield as well.