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Torah Commentary
Va-y'chi (January 14, 2017)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

This week we arrive at the final portion in the Book of Genesis: Parashat Va-y’chi. This portion easily could have been named “Blessings and Deaths,” as within it we read about Jacob’s final blessings to his sons as well as about the deaths of Rachel, Jacob and Joseph. However, the thing that kept on catching my eye as I read and re-read the text was the name of Joseph’s father and Rachel’s husband: the biblical character of Jacob whose name was changed to Israel by God several parashiyot ago in Genesis 32:29. Throughout this week’s portion, the text goes back and forth between calling him Jacob and Israel. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of consistency, and sometimes the name changes within the same verse. Why?

To answer this question, I started asking people what they thought. Over dinner, a friend suggested that maybe we can interpret the Jacob vs. Israel issue to be one of personal vs. national. Are we speaking about Jacob the individual or Israel the forefather of a nation?

The next day I was responsible for the text study at the Department of Lifelong Learning’s weekly meeting. So I made a copy of the text, passed individual pages out to my colleagues, along with highlighters, and asked them to highlight on their page whenever it said “Jacob” or “Israel” and then to think about why the particular name was used in each instance. This, too, was an interesting conversation. We learned that often “Israel” is used when a physical action is involved: “Israel bowed down,” (Genesis 47:31); “Israel rallied,” (Genesis 48:2); “Israel saw,” (Genesis 48:8); and “Israel stretched out his right hand.” (Genesis 48:14) “Jacob,” however, most often is used when he is interacting with his family: “Jacob said to Joseph,” (Genesis 48:3); “Jacob then summoned his sons,” (Genesis 49:1); and “When Jacob was done charging his sons...” (Genesis 49:33) It was noted that the event where Jacob is given the name Israel also resulted in his developing a limp after wrestling with God, so there is evidence to support the connection between the use of “Israel” and physicality. Furthermore, Jacob’s name change is between him and God, so his family may not have been aware of this change, and therefore, it is logical that the name “Jacob” be used in conjunction with his family, as that is how they know him.

So “Jacob” is personal and familial, while “Israel” is national and physical. Now let’s move on to the story with this understanding.

Jacob makes Joseph promise to take him out of Egypt when he dies and to bury him with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca in the cave of Machpelah. When the time comes, Joseph gets permission from Pharaoh to do just this; Joseph takes Jacob’s body from Egypt and buries him with his ancestors up near Hevron. It is clearly Jacob (and not Israel) who dies, and it is interesting to note that in following Jacob’s final wishes, Joseph connects his father to the past by reuniting him with his family in death. Later, when Joseph dies, he is not buried in this cave.

It is Israel (and not Jacob) who gives his blessing to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, but both names are invoked when he then calls all of his own children together to bless them: “Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; hearken to Israel your father.” (Genesis 49:1) Here he is both personal as the head of the family as well as nationalistic when he blesses the future of our people and gives start to the 12 tribes of Israel. As the Genesis story is ending, we are literally at the brink of the nation-forming narrative of the Israelites that begins next week in the book of Exodus. (The Hebrew name for this book is Sh’mot, or literally “Names.”)

While for the last part of Jacob’s life he may have lived as both Jacob and Israel, in Va-y’chi Jacob’s death gives birth to Israel. Jacob represents the past while Israel is the beginning of the future. Once Jacob the individual has died, Israel the nation is established. And, thus, we learn in this week’s text, through Jacob’s own blessing, that Israel’s name may live on and be for a blessing.

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