Why Are We Called the People of Israel?

Vayetzei By :  Edward Feld JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Nov 17, 2007 / 5768 | Torah Commentary

We are called not the People Abraham, nor the People Isaac, rather we are called the People Israel, named for the third of the patriarchal family, Jacob. Why is it his acquired name we bear?

Abraham is a mythic figure—we have almost no clue to his inner life. Both at the beginning of his story and at the end, we see him following God’s command with absolute faith. Like all epic heroes, he goes to war and is victorious. Whatever we may feel about his dealings with the Egyptian pharaoh and the Philistian king, his life appears charmed and God protects him.

While we have mythic tales of this father, there is a paucity of information regarding Isaac, his son, the second of the patriarchs. Essentially we see him in two scenes, in both of which he is a passive player, the Akedah and the blessing of Jacob. The first is a narrative in which all attention is on Abraham, the second a scene essentially stage-managed by Isaac’s wife, Rebecca.

The Jacob narrative is different than both of these, something less and something much more. Jacob’s emotional life is apparent. We are told when he is fearful; we are told when he is in love. His domestic life is carefully examined and his troubles and feelings are in full view; almost all of his story involves the mediation, often unsuccessful, of the rivalries and competitiveness within his family, with his brother, his wives, his children. He engages in a battle of wits with his uncle, at first being outsmarted, and then learning the game and winning. When we meet him at the beginning of this week’s parashah, he is a seemingly penniless vagrant, resting on the side of the road with a stone under his head. Unlike Eleazar, Abraham’s servant who earlier in the Genesis narrative had gone to Haran to bring home a wife for Isaac, he is a suitor who bears no gifts—when he meets Laban he lacks the purchase price for a wife and must work seven years for Rachel’s hand.

He arrives in Haran, the home that Abraham left, alone and he departs with a huge family. Further, though at the outset he has no goods whatsoever, at the end of the reading, when he leaves Laban’s house, he is clearly a man of formidable wealth, herding a massive flock of animals. But the trajectory of his life is not simply uphill. His relationship with his family is constantly troubled. We suspect that the love relationship with Rachel has gone aground; their dialogue certainly seems less than loving. His eldest, Reuben, disrespects him. His disagreements with Laban almost put his life in danger. Fear and disappointment never leave him. In old age, reflecting on it all, he will complain to Pharoah, “Few and hard have been the years of my life” (Gen. 47:9).

Of all the patriarchs, then, Jacob is the most human, suffering ups and downs, living through successful accomplishment and suffering tragedy. He is the most human, the most like us. And we are called the People Israel because his are precisely the most human of tasks with which we are to engage: How to live with one another, how to love, how to raise families, how to create community. That is the stuff of Jewish law, the halakha, the path which we are to create in order to build a life that aims toward God.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, begins his classic work, the Tanya, with a discussion of the Beinoni, the middling person, neither the one who is fully righteous nor the one who is evil. Although many Hasidic masters placed great emphasis on the development of the tzadik, the religious master, Schneur Zalman seems to be arguing that in the end, even those who seek a life of extreme piety are simply middling people, made up of flesh and blood, tossed about by circumstance, subject to mixed motives, trying to work through relationships and be decent husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers. We have to come to grips with our own fears, our loves, our self-concern, our wish to make a difference. And always we meet the Other who is not what we expect, who is filled with his or her own ambitions, fears, inclinations, desires, a succession of Others with whom we wrestle.

So Jacob maps the path for us. He goes to sleep in a field, dreams, and awakes only to discover what he didn’t comprehend or imagine, “Truly there is a God in this place, and I didn’t know it.” We, too, can enter into our world, the world of everyday busyness, the place of ambition and concern, of love that strives to be realized and of motive that is misunderstood, but as we struggle through to create a measure of holiness out of the ordinary, out of the everyday, we truly become living participants in the story of the People Israel. We, too, might be able to echo our eponymous ancestor and amid the striving, the wrestling, discover that that is where we find God: in the revelation that the everyday may contain holiness.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ed Feld

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.