Rabbi Dr Zvi Aviner

Justice-3/Israel  or Jacob? o



The name Israel is very popular around the globe. Most of Mankind today – Christians and Muslims- claim themselves to be the heir of Israel,  orto have replaced Israel; that without understanding what the name means.  Had they known it, they would be ashamed.


What is the meaning of the name Israel?

As a rule, whenever we wish to understand a concept in the Torah, we need to look at the first site where it is introduced.  There we would find everything that the Torah wishes to tell us about that concept or name.


For instance – if I wish to know what the term ELKM means, I would go to Genesis chapter One where it says “In the beginning, ELKM created the Heavens and the Earth.” There in chapter One, I would get a clear notion about ELKM – Heh is a CREATOR, a BUILDER and a JUDGE.


In the same token I would comprehend YHVH–   by looking at the end of the Six Day, where She appears the first time in the text, as an acronym  connecting our world to the Sabbath.


Hence, looking for the meaning of the name Israel, we need to go to the first place where it is mentioned in the Torah, that is, in the struggle between Jacob and Esau’s angel. There it says:




The text: Jacob wrestling with the Angel


“Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him   until the brake of dawn,

When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip’ so Jacob hip socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him.

And he said: let me go for the dawn has broken,

And he said: I will not let you go unless you bless me.

He said to him: What is your name?

And he replied: Jacob.

He said: No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel. For you have striven with El and with people and you have overcome.

And Jacob inquired, and he said: please tell me your name.

And he said: “why then do you inquire my name?

And he blessed him there.” (Genesis 32:25)



Let’s recall the background of the scene.  Jacob was returning home, actually running for his life away from Laban the Aramite, his father-in-law who has threatened to kill him.

At the same time, Esau approaching him from the south,  with four hundreds armed men, obviously to kill Jacob and his family as he had swarmed to do.

That scenario happened because of Jacob’s policy to cheat back in order to implement his justice.


So that was the moment where the struggle he had for justice would come to a bad end. So, the Torah tells us that at the night before Esau would meet him face to face, with terrible results, Jacob found himself alone on one side of the river Yabok, a small river running into the Sea of the Galilee.


The Torah emphasizes that he was alone, while his family was left on the other side of the river bank, and there was no other man around him. We’ll see the importance of that statement.


Then a man appeared and started wrestling with Jacob.  Tradition says the man was actually the Angel of Esau, his presentation at the Heavenly Court, who tried to overcome Jacob.


They wrestled all night long, sometime hugging each other as brothers, sometimes fighting each other with full force.  No one won, but at dawn the Angel managed to dislocate Jacob’s hip, almost winning, yet Jacob overcame him and did not let him go up to Heavens unless he has blessed Jacob.  When the Angel blessed him, he also added a new name to Jacob – Israel.


Why Israel? For it says: “Because you have strived with El and Men and you have won.”

The Hebrew verb here for strived, sarita, has several important meaning:


  1. You have struggle with El, an angel
  2. You have become even, straight, with ELKM  – “Yashar El”
  3. You have become an officer with ELM – Sar with El”
  4. You have been approved to join the Angelic Choir that chant each day at dawn: Holy, Holy, Holy, the world is full of His Glory.  Yashir with El.

The choir chants this in Heavens, every  morning at dawn.  Here the angel promotes Jacob-Israel to chant this from the ground, while the choir pauses and listens.


Each of those meanings is essential for the understanding of Israel.



Jacob struggle

What did Jacob and the Angel struggle about all night long?


When we read the stories about Jacob, we see that they revolve around one issue – his seeking truth, JUSTICE.   Thus, he strives to be recognized as the firstborn of the family, which would enable him to receive Abraham’s blessing, then at Laban’s house he strives against Laban’s repeated cheating, giving him his wrong daughter, and then denying him his monetary compensation for his hard work as a shepherd. Those are typical civil order issues,   not religious ones.

The point is that in all those cases, Jacob attempted to bring out his truth and achieve justice by fighting directly or indirectly.  The truth for him is the most important  issue, and he would not hesitate to cheat back in order to find it.


After all, the way of ELKM – the Attribute of Justice – is to follow “measure for measure.”.  Hence, there is nothing immoral to cheat back those who have cheated you. Esau was such a cheater.  Although he has violated all the Seven Commandments of Noah, he “hunted” his blind father’s heart by presenting himself as a pious man, says the Midrash. He could cheat Isaac, but not Rebeca, who has grown up in the house of master-cheaters. Therefore she loved the innocent Jacob, and preferred him as a firstborn rather than  Esau. We should remember that the twin Jacob and Esau came out as one piece, so that Jacob too had a legitimate claim for the firstborn status, especially when Esau despised, as the Torah says.


So Jacob stove for his truth and justice in the ways of ELKM, the All Mighty JUDGE. The result was that although his truth came out, and he received Abraham’s blessing, and also received his monetary compensations for Laban, but that victory came with the price of peace – both Esau and Laban were after him with terrible rage, wishing to kill him.  If there is truth, there is no peace, says the Talmud.


So how would Jacob receive both, justice and peace?



The power of Settlement

What does our court do in our society to achieve justice?

Suppose two litigants appear before the court, each with a solid claim.

The court would try first to find out the stance of each side. Each is encouraged to present himself as fully as he could. The court would even appoint lawyers to present each case. Each lawyer would surely bring up the full merit of his side, while smearing the other side.  There is a battel raged in the courtroom, stirring up emotion in the supporters and fans of each side in the room. The result is that each side would entrance itself more deeply into its position.

Then,  even when the court would finally issue its verdict, the loosing side would not give up.  It would appeal to a higher court, and then even to a higher court, as long as possible.  The loosing side would carry grudge against the winning side and even against the court.  The truth was achieved by the court, yet without peace.



 Anticipating that scenario, the court would often tell the litigants, before the trial begins, to try achieving a settlement between themselves OUTSIDE THE COURT’S ROOM.  There, each side facing the other without supporters or fans, a settlement could be acheive with the agreement of each side. Sitting alone, each side may recognize its own faults and the merits of the other side, without their ego interfering.

The court would also say to the litigants: if you have failed to achieve at settlement, then come back and we, the court, would issue our verdict as we see it, at all cost – even when we know that the loosing side would not agree.



Wrestling at the river bank


The same procedure was offered to Jacob and Esau.  Seeing that each side would not give up its case,  the Heavenly Court – of YHVH and ELKM – held itself from interfering with its own verdict.

Had ELKM interfered, He would most like opt for Jacob as the firstborn, knowing that Esau would not give up and would proceed with his plan to kill Jacob next day.


YHVH too heisted to intervene, since She loves Jacob, as the prophet Malachi says: “Was not Esau a brother of Jacob? Yet I loved Jacob and I hated Esau.”  If She intervenes, Esau would not agree to the verdict, with the hatred continuing.   The truth would come out – with the price of the Peace. And YHVA IS FOR PEACE, EVEN FOR THE PRICE OF THE TRUTH.


Therefore, the Heavenly Court  removed itself from the case, and allowed Jacob and Eau’s  Angel – his lawyer – to face each other ALONE, with no fan watching.


And they wrestled all night long, not moving  an inch,  raising much dust by their feet. Sometimes they hug each other, sometimes they hit each other.  Face to face, each side could remember positive things about the other.  Had they not played to together as children? Surely they had good memories oof fun! Jacob thought- after all, I took advantage of my brother by selling him the lentils soup when he was hungry.  Surely, I misbehaved when I disguised myself as him, cheating our father.  And Esau too could think – well, what’s the deal?  What do I care about Abraham’s blessing! I have plenty of wealth and honor already! I do not covet for the Land of Canaan!


So they wrestled through the night, and finally the Angel managed to dislocated Jacob’s hip. Yet Jacob continued to fight and at dawn, his leg was over the Angel’s neck.


Please let me go up, the Angel bagged, for I need to join the Heavenly Choir (Rashi).

I would not, said Jacob, unless you’ve consented to me and blessed me.

Indeed, said the Angel, and he consented and change Jacob name to Israel.

The Angel did not replace the name Jacob, but added the new name Israel. And then it departed IN PEACE.

Few hours later, the ‘real’ Esau met Jacob.  Although he had with him four hundreds armed men, he kissed and hugged Jacob, and they departed with peace.


We don’t know the details of the dialogue, ether alone at the river bank or in public in front of many supporters, but we don’t care about it – as long s they live in peace.



The name Israel

Therefore means “you’ve strived evenly against the Angel of ELKM, or ELKM’s ways, and you’ve won! You have found a new way that ELKM would not do – reaching an agreement with peace.  Israel then means the readiness to give up  searching the truth,  for the sake of peaice! Why? For YHVH prefers peace over the absolute truth of ELKM.


Israel is born here to spread the truth about G-d to the nations. But this would not be accomplished by the sword and by direct or indirect confrontation, but rather by face to face dialogue.


When David conquered Syria, thought to annex it to the “holy land of Israel,” yet the Sanhedrin objected.  Forcing Judaism on the Syrians was also prohibited. The religion of Israel cannot be spread by force nor by getting secondary gains.




What would have happened if Esau’s Angel did not surrender to Israel? What if Esau- or his fans – attack Israel?


If that happens, Israel can revert to the mode oof Jacob and fight back, using the “hands oof Esau”, swords!


Jacob is David, says the Midrash.

Jacob is Judah the Maccabee, the Israeli


The Shechinah, YHVH, Entering our World

The wrestle scene between Jacob and Esau’s Angel is  so important, that Kabbalah sees here a NEW HIGHLIGHT OF THE SHECHINAH, called GLORY.


  1. Grace – In the story of creation, before Adam’s sin
  2. Forgiving to those who repent – Adam where are you?
  3. Compassionate Mother – in Eve’s words after giving birth to Cain.
  4. Merciful YHVH who hates cruelty. Hence Noah’s Commandment numberSeven.
  5. A participant in the Court’s session – in Noah’s Flood
  6. Taking over JUDGMENT for the sake of peace – in Jacob becoming Israel
  7. As a Savior – in the Exodus




Israel seeking justice

Having born into such the task of seeking JUSTICE either as Israel or as Jacob, Israel is extremally sensitive to any misjustice done in the world. You can find Jews in any civil right campaigns.


But Israel can call the nations for justice.  Over the last three thousand years, Israel’s name was stollen,

and her Torah was stollen by people who don’t comprehend the magnitude of that name.  Israel

has been the target of misunderstanding, false accusations and blood liable.

The Torah predicts here all that. But, as the prophet  Hagai says: It iis not by force, but by my spirit- you’ll win.

We’ll win not as Jacob, but rather as Israel.