A Study in Contrasts


Intriguingly, the two names of our third Patriach – Yaakov and Yisroel – are opposites, and reveal converse strengths and attributes. Let us explore:

Method One – Sly and Straight

Esav, after realizing that he has been beaten to the Brochos exclaims: “Is it for this reason that he was named Yaakov? He has deceived me (Vayakveini) twice; he took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing.” A clear indication that ‘Yaakov’ is related to subterfuge.

On the other hand Yisroel is a portmanteau blend of Yoshor and E-l  – Straight and G-d – his very essence proclaimed obedience to Hashem, and demonstrated the veracity of Hashem’s ways. He no longer needed to navigate with cunning around evil to get to Hashem, Yisroel could take the direct route to Hashem – Yosher E-l

In the Talmud too, we find different tactics that are to be employed when fighting the Yetzer Hora. Rava, one of the most famous sages of the Babylonian Talmud, married at sixteen years of age. He once commented that had he, Rava, married earlier at the age of fourteen, he would have been able to shoot arrows at the Evil Inclination, that is he could defiantly confront the Yetzer Hora.

Both of these strategies were part of the arsenal belonging to our forefather. At the outset of his spiritual career Yaakov had to shrewdly navigate around Evil. He was not yet spiritually developed to fight headlong with the Yetzer Hora and challenge him directly. After many decades of success; time spent in proximity with Lavan, and his subsequent struggle with Esav’s archangel, his name was changed to Yisroel. He was able to look evil in the eye and still emerge victorious.
(Note: Micha (7:20) says “Give truth to Yaakov” it does not refer to him by Yisroel, implying that Yaakov is to be associated with truth).

Method Two – Follower and Leader

‘Yaakov’ is educed from the word Eikev meaning heel, the lowest part of the foot, this carries the connotation of following, ‘to heel someone’ is to travel close behind that person. At the birth of Yitzchok and Rivka’s twins, Esav emerged first, followed by Yaakov with his hand grasping onto Esav’s heel, this is why he was named Yaakov – heel. Yaakov was born a follower, even in birth he was trailing Esav. Yisroel is borne out of the word Sar meaning a ruler.

The original plan was for Esav and Yaakov to work together as a team. Yaakov would be the ‘tent dweller’ with his spiritual focus turned inward, Esav was ‘a man of the field’ his spiritual direction would  enable him to maneuver through the world and support his brother. Thus Yaakov would need Esav and Esav would need Yaakov, in this arrangement Esav would lead and Yaakov would follow. The plan changed through Rivka’s prophetic intervention and Yaakov had to become self sufficient, he would now have to assume a new role and be the leader. Thus Yaakov went from being a subservient to Esav and needing to grasp onto him, to the other extreme, Yaakov became Esav’s ruler.


Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid (993-c.1056) was a close advisor to Berber King, Habbus al-Muzaffar in Spain. Once, the two were walking together deep in conversation, when a passerby began to scream and curse Rabbi Shmuel. The king was incensed at this insult to his favorite. “This man deserves a severe punishment! Guards cut out his tongue!” Rabbi Shmuel quickly stepped in, and insisted that he himself would ensure retribution. “Very well,” the King agreed, “I leave this in your hands.”

Rabbi Shmuel investigated the man’s situation, discovering that he was but a penniless poet, plagued by his poverty. He immediately sent the man many gifts, and undertook his support for the future. Overcome with gratitude this man became a zealous admirer of Rabbi Shmuel.

The King and Rabbi Shmuel found themselves on a similar walk some time after these events. They passed the very same poet, who this time recited poetry praising Rabbi Shmuel and the King.

“Is this poet still speaking? I thought I ordered his tongue cut out,” questioned the King.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Rabbi Shmuel replied “I did indeed cut out his rotten evil tongue and exchanged it for a fresh virtuous tongue.”

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