I’ve begun to think of the Hebrew alphabet as a combination of Chinese and English. It could be that this reflects the fact I do not know any Chinese. Nevertheless, what I mean is that just like in Chinese or old Japanese, the letters are pictures rather than sounds, while in English the letter migrated to be mostly sounds irrelevant of any original picture they represented, so too, one can see the Hebrew alphabet is a mix of pictures and sounds. On one hand, you can learn the Hebrew letters as just sounds: here, this is a Bet. It makes a “B” sound. Great! On the other hand, you learn that each letter started out from a picture, and as such, represents a whole idea that stands behind that symbol. The Bet therefore, is not just “b”. It is a “bayit”, a house. If you look at it carefully, you can see the walls, floor and roof, as well as the porch on the right side. In many words, it represents building something, like in the words av, ben & bat, all building family and continuity(wait, how come em / ima – mom – then has no bet? Next time…)
If we knew what each letter stands for, we could create a word, and indeed, this is what made the roots system. The challenge is that sometimes, the sometimes, those roots grew to such amazing trees, that some of their branches are too far to easily figure out what connects them.
Ya’akov is one such name. When he was born, we learned that his name comes from akev, heel, because he was holding his brothers foot. Were so used to it that we don’t think anymore how strange it is to name your child ankle, though it doesn’t make sense. Then we read about Yaakov & Esau and notice that Esau is using Yaakovs name as a verb: “vaya’akveni ze pa’amayim” – “and he deceived me twice already” (Genesis 27:36). We keep reading through the Torah and come across the Torah portion of “Ekev”, translated as “because”, and then we end up in Isaiah (40:4) who says, “vehaya ha’akov lemishor” – loosely translated as ‘the crooked will become straight, or flat’. In Modern Hebrew, ikvi means – regular, consistent, walking step by step. All these words come from ayin, kof, bet.
The letters making Ya’akov’s name can be scrambled to make other possibly related Hebrew roots: kof, ayin, bet makes the word keva – permanent, steady, while the root bet, kof, ayin, placing the bet for building first, makes the root for baka, breaking through, as in a plant sprouting (a flower bulb is a pka’at). We get the idea of something over all low and grounded.
Let’s leave this for a moment and explore Ya’akov’s second name.
In this week’s parasha, Ya’akov’s name is changed to Yisrael. Notice, that while Avraham only goes through a slight name change (Genesis 17:5) and Yitzchak’s name stays the same throughout his life, Ya’akov gets a whole new name: The angel he struggles with names him Yisra’el “ for you have become the commanding power before G-d and men, and you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Some say Yisra’el comes from S.R.H – to rule or lord, while others say, it comes from Y.Sh.R – the root for straightforward.
Either way, when we put both names side by side, they help us understand each other: one relates to lower elements: a heel, a deception, a chain reaction, a crooked road or area. You read the list, and it makes you want to bow your head down. The other relates to higher and exalted feeling: victory, royalty, straight and open. Reading it, I want to lift my head proudly. Which way is it?
Rabbi Dardik in his drash on Shabbat Vayishalch at Beth Jacob, Oakland expanded on this, bringing in the Kotzker rebbe’s voice. The latter said that in the opening verse of this week’s reading, “And Jacob sent angel before him (lefanav)” the text really wanted to say “milfanav”, away from him. Rabbi Dardik then connected it to Rashi’s commentary of Genesis 18. There, three angels visited Abraham and only two visited Lot. Why? Because an angel is a being who can only fulfill one mission at a time, therefore, the one who told Abraham about the birth of his child, completed his task and stayed behind. Back to Jacob, if indeed, angels are one-tasked, Jacob from this point on, can no longer accept these beings in his life, as his life has become fully human, fully complex, fully multidimensional. This is expressed in his names.
Unlike others in the Torah, Ya’akov’s name change is not permanent or compete. From here on till the end his life, he will be called both, Ya’akov & Yisra’el, reminding us that like him, we also hold two, often conflicting aspects of ourselves within us. The pain and joy of experiencing and juggling them both, is what life is made of.