Jacob (Israel), with his constant struggle to make a name for himself, a struggle that did not stop once he had finally succeeded, is the Patriarch that most defines the nation that carries his name.
The Jewish patriarch Jacob was renamed “Israel” twice in Genesis: during his repatriation into the Holy Land promised to his forefathers in the aftermath of an angelic wrestling encounter in Chapter 32 and again by Divine pronouncement in Chapter 35. The modern Jewish State of Israel was so named only once, during the throes of its birth in May of 1948. What does “Israel” mean and why should we care?
There were many contenders for the name of the new country, but the frontrunners were some version of “Zion” or “Judea” – Biblical references to the geography of the Holy Land which had emotional currency with a Western world, then still sensitive to the gravity of scriptural terms.
Yehuda Avner, the storied Israeli statesman, diplomat, and intellectual, said that the question had not yet been publicly resolved when the Independence War began. With a cue from the ‘HaTikva’ anthem, his battalion assumed that they were fighting for a country to be called Zion. While in a dusty Jerusalem trench, commanders informed his unit that the new Jewish Commonwealth was to be called “Israel” – the very name twice conferred upon Jacob and a moniker of the Jewish People ever since in national literature of all genres. Indeed, Israelite conquest by Jacob’s great grandchildren formally converted Canaan into what was henceforth called the “Land of Israel” in Jewish parlance.
Instead of opting for a name associated with geography, the Zionists bravely agreed to name the country for the Jewish ethnos – the People of Israel, who are the ethnic continuity and the linguistic and spiritual inheritors of the Children of Israel who marched from Mount Sinai into Canaan over 3,000 years ago. “Israel” alludes to Divine Power by way of the inclusion of a Divine Name “El” much like the names of angels like Gabriel, Michael, or Rafael. The name “Israel” was an unapologetic statement that the reborn country was to be a Jewish State, and not simply a republic available to Jewish refugees, carved from the remains of the Ottoman Levant.
This greater ‘vision’ for the fledgling Jewish country is inherent in its old-new name. The exact meaning of the term “Israel” requires elucidation by way of its Semitic root. The verse in Genesis 32 implies that “Israel” derives from ‘ShaRaH’ – meaning exertion or struggle – and denotes Jacob’s recent victory over the angelic Divine Force (“El”) with which he physically grappled until dawn.
The c.1600 ‘Kli Yakar’ commentary of a chief rabbi of Prague suggests that “Israel” derives, instead, from the root ‘ShUR’ – meaning to see or behold – so that “Israel” denotes a spiritual vision of the Divine which Jacob attained as a direct result of his midnight dustup with the Divine.
His birth name “Jacob” variably refers to a figurative or literal heel of the foot, or to trickery. Jacob’s name was one of emotional and physical limitations. Israel, a dynamic angelic name, speaks of the potential for soulful clarity engendered in his biological and spiritual descendants precisely because they will always wrangle with the very idea of holiness. No people have the deeply amorous, acrimonious, and aspirational relationship with God as do the Jews as their constant wrestling with national election and revelation, punishments and exiles testifies. The Jews are always grappling with Godliness in the Night of Exile and even more so in the Day of the Return to Zion.
Commentaries explain that the Master of the Universe bestowed this angelic name upon Jacob to help him to “man up” to confront fears and settle the Holy Land. “Israel” expresses a Divine Will that the Jewish Nation perpetually ‘God-gaze’ and transcend the small mindedness of Diaspora thinking. Israel must ultimately reinvent and reacclimate itself as a facilitator of a universal Divine connection with Humanity. On this journey, the name “Israel” implies that a political state is secondary to its Israelite citizens, reborn to wrestle the geography of Ottoman Palestine back into a tangibly Holy Land.