What lasting message are we left with as we complete the book of Bereishit?
We can take a hint from the introduction to Jacob’s blessing of his sons.
הִקָּבְצ֥וּ וְשִׁמְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְשִׁמְע֖וּ אֶל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אֲבִיכֶֽם׃
Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father:
Many commentaries on the Torah have noted that there are two different names used for the children of the third patriarch in this verse; Son of Jacob and Sons of Israel.
We know that Jacob was given a new name by God after he fought with the angel before encountering Esau. (Gen. 32:29).
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men and have prevailed.”
I would like to suggest that each name provides a different message to the assembled and, as an extension, to us.
Jacob is a birth name. A birth name is given without any knowledge of who the child will be or what they will accomplish. The moniker “Sons of Jacob” refers to their passive identity - elements of their character that they did not create.
The Jewish people are also, by virtue of our heritage, Sons of Jacob. This distinction does not depend on our behavior or accomplishments. We did not earn it. It just is.
Israel, on the other hand, was a name given after an accomplishment; specifically, a struggle. This name represents recognition of change and accomplishment. Being the Children of Israel (Bnei Yisrael), reflects an expectation that we do something with the fate handed to us.
Jacobs’s sons were summoned, first as Bnei Yaakov - sons of Jacob; born into a family, an identity that was not chosen or dependent on anything they did. It was a matter of common ancestry and a shared fate.
But, ultimately, that is not enough to propel us to greater success and growth. After the group assembled, each son was singled out and given a hint to their individuality. As the name Israel refers to a unique moment in the life of the patriarch, summoning the Bnei Yisrael - the children of Israel, was a message to them that they are unique and have some special character.
Rabbi Soloveitchik related to both types of existence.
“What is the nature of the existence of fate? It is an existence of compulsion... unto which the individual has been cast by providence, without prior consultation. The “I” of fate has the image of an object. As an object, he appears as made and not as maker…”
“What is the nature of the existence of destiny? It is an active mode of existence, one wherein man confronts the environment into which he was thrown, possessed of an understanding of his uniqueness, of his special worth of his freedom, and of his ability to struggle with his external circumstances without forfeiting either his independence or his selfhood. “
This dual burden should concern all of us. As a Jewish community - we stand united in recognition of our common past. That is a strong bond, it is the bond of family. Like many families, that bond will bring us together when times are tough and when we perceive a threat or danger.
Yet, we can be so much more. Even as we are a part of the same family, each member of our community has something special to contribute. Each synagogue and Jewish agency has specific areas of communal life that they can impact. Each one of us is a singular Bnei Yisrael - child of Israel.
The strength of the Jewish community can be found by using our Bnei Yaakov (common past and family bond) to drive us to exercise our Bnei Yisrael genes - that which makes each child and tribe special - for the good of the collective.
This is a question of how we see ourselves within the Jewish community. Is each synagogue and agency a self-standing entity disconnected from the others - with no common interests or concerns, except when we perceive a threat? Or do we see ourselves as Bnei Yaakov and Bnei Yisrael -sharing a common bond that propels us to use our special sense of agency to benefit the entire community.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (The Netziv) likens the Jewish people to a garden with many different vegetables growing in it. All of us are growing, so to speak, in the same garden, yet we are each a different species.
This image invites us to consider how we strategize, program and plan in the hope that we find our place in the shared garden that is our community.
Rabbi Barry Gelman
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.