Change a person’s name, change his destiny. Abraham’s name was changed to the father of many nations after a significant encounter with God. After a nighttime struggle with a divine being, Jacob, “the heel holder” in childhood and adolescence, is also transformed; he becomes Israel the progenitor of the Jewish people.
The origin of the name Israel is mysterious, which may be why the Torah offers a definition; Israel means “God wrestler”. This definition is based on a rare Hebrew root, s-r-h, and its near singularity invites commentators to offer alternative explanations.
Relying on another moniker for Jacob, Yeshurun, the medieval commentator Rashi maintains that the name Israel is related to the root, y-sh-r, meaning “to be upright or straight”. It refers to Jacob’s change of character. Whereas once he was manipulative and crooked (a sense associated with the root of Jacob’s name), now as Israel he has become candid and upstanding. Separately, the ancient historian Philo asserts that the name Israel is derived from the root sh-w-r, which means “to see”. Israel becomes the man who sees God.
Uniquely among the patriarchs, all of Jacob’s children are part of the Children of Israel. While Abraham and Isaac fathered the Jewish people, they also fathered the Ishmaelites and the Edomites. Together, all of the Children of Israel (and generations to come) stood at Sinai, together they witnessed God’s presence, and together they received the Torah.
Israel bequeaths to his descendants the transformative experience of his encounter with God.
Today as the descendants of the Children of Israel, our deepest form of piety is wrestling with God and passionately questioning the way to approach the Divine.