The Talmud tells us that anyone who refers to our forefather Avrohom by his earlier name, Avram, has committed a sin (Berachos 13a). The kabbalists explain that our names are not merely labels but representations that describe the essence of our souls. Therefore, to call our patriarch by anything other than his new name constitutes a negation of his spiritual transformation and a rejection of our spiritual mission as his descendants.
The Talmud suggests that, according to this reasoning, the same should apply to Yaakov after the Almighty changed his name to Yisroel. However, because the Torah itself continues to call him Yaakov, the Talmud concludes that there is no such prohibition. Both names remain relevant as accurate descriptions of Yaakov and, consequently, either name may be used.
But why? The Talmud offers no explanation for why HaShem would have changed Yaakov’s name to Yisroel if He intended the former name to remain relevant. Furthermore, the wording of the verse is nearly identical to that in which Avrohom receives his new name: No longer will your name be called Yaakov; rather, Yisroel shall your name be called (Bereishis 35:10). Why does the Almighty declare that the name Yaakov should no longer be used, then continue the use of that name?
The name change from Yaakov to Yisroel is prophesied earlier, when Yaakov wrestled with the sar shel Eisav, the guardian angel appointed over the nation that would descend from Yaakov’s wicked brother. As he traveled toward his first encounter with his brother in 20 years, Yaakov was forced to engage in spiritual combat with the divine emissary representing Eisav’s power and influence throughout the generations.
By defeating the malach of Eisav in battle, Yaakov not only assured the ultimate victory of his progeny over the descendants of Eisav, but also elevated himself to a spiritual level higher than that of a purely spiritual being. By doing so, Yaakov attained a level of spiritual self-completion that rendered further physical service irrelevant. As Yaakov, he had nothing more to accomplish. To remain in this world, he needed a new goal, a new spiritual purpose requiring a new name. He became Yisroel, and began to direct his efforts toward the fulfillment of a new mission.
Rashi explain that the name Yisroel derives from the word sar, meaning “ruler,” alluding to Yisroel’s ultimate dominion over the world that would characterize the arrival of the messianic era. However, Rav Moshe Alshich interprets Yisroel as deriving from the word yashar, meaning “straight,” in contrast to the name Yaakov, from okav, meaning “crooked.”
This interpretation helps us understand the words of the Sforno, who explains that Yaakov’s original name applies to the contention between him and his brother, Eisav. In dealing with crooked people, one may sometimes have to apply tactics that may themselves appear to be less than upright. Although we dare not adopt the ways of the wicked even in our efforts to vanquish them, occasionally we must draw so near to the boundary between propriety and impropriety that the outside observer may question the virtue of our own actions.
As long as the influence of Eisav remains dominant in the world, the children of Yaakov have no choice but to employ the name Yaakov and all that it implies – as with Yaakov’s apparent manipulation of Eisav to prevent him from misusing his birthright, and as with his temporary deception of their father, Yitzchok, to prevent the disastrous bestowal of the blessings Eisav would have exploited to destroy his brother. Even a saint cannot always retain the image of saintliness when battling unconscionable evil.
However, when the dominion of Eisav is ultimately overthrown and the influence of Eisav is uprooted from the world, then the name Yaakov will no longer be necessary. The necessity of battling against evil will be gone, and all will recognize the uprightness of Yaakov’s descendants and their singular devotion to the service of their Creator. Only the straightness of Yisroel will remain, and the appearance of crookedness imposed upon him by his brother will be nothing more than memory.