Today was one of the happiest days of my life. It was also one of the most difficult days of my life. Today, my newest grandson was named for my father zt’l. The experience of attending the bris and hearing my holy father’s name ascribed to a child of eight days was a bittersweet moment. It was one of desperately trying to merge the memories of the past with the hopeful potential of the future. This tiny child was given the big name, Refoel Yisroel Yaakov ben Yitzchok Aaron. This appellation depicts struggle, consistency, humility and triumph, all attributes that both represent our forefather, Yaakov and my father, who was named at his bris, Yisroel Yaakov.
We are offered much insight in Tanach about the original name Yisroel and Yaakov, both names given to Yaakov Aveinu (our forefather Yaakov). Describing the birth of the twins of Yitzchok and Esau in Bereishis 25:25-26, we read:
וַיֵּצֵ֤א הָרִאשׁוֹן֙ אַדְמוֹנִ֔י כֻּלּ֖וֹ כְּאַדֶּ֣רֶת שֵׂעָ֑ר וַיִּקְרְא֥וּ שְׁמ֖וֹ עֵשָֽׂו׃
The first one emerged red, like a hairy mane all over; and they named him Esau.c
וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֞ן יָצָ֣א אָחִ֗יו וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ בַּעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְיִצְחָ֛ק בֶּן־שִׁשִּׁ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בְּלֶ֥דֶת אֹתָֽם׃
Then his brother emerged, grasping the heel of Esau; and He named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.
The Medrash teaches us that of the two twins, Yaakov was actually conceived first, which would entitle him to the bechora (eldest birthright). At birth, Yaakov fought to emerge first, proving in this natural world that he was entitled to the bechora. Describing the birth, it emphasizes that Esau emerged as a redhead and they called him Esau whereas Yaakov was born holding the heel of Esau and He called him Yaakov. This passage begs several questions: who was He and why would Yaakov be named for his failed struggle, grasping the heel of his twin and future adversary Esau?
My father taught me to first explore the simple peshat (understanding) of תַּרְגּוּם אֻנְקְלוֹס (an Aramaic translation by the convert Unkelos),for his terse translation can be illuminating. Unkelos translates וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ as וְידיה אֹחידה meaning Baby Yaakov was united or linked with the heel of Esau. As I tried to understand this passage, I contemplated, what is a heel?
A heel is the body part that touches the ground, it is the first part of a footstep. A heel is what connects a person to the material part of the world and sets one’s direction. Perhaps, Yaakov’s struggle was to be united with Esau. Perhaps, he fought to prove that it was possible to incorporate the material world of Esau within the spiritual world of Torah. That union could begin a holy trajectory.
The word Yaakov described my father’s essence so completely. As a young boy, my father was a gifted athlete. As he would dig his heels into home plate to bolster his swing and as he would slide into base to score a close run, his heels would meet the ground. Once my father settled into a life of learning Torah, he transferred that gevurah (strength) from the baseball field to the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall) . In fact, my father’s favorite learning posture was with his hands clenched behind his head, reaching upward to the heavens with only the tips of his heels rooted in the ground. It was the posture of someone so grounded and yet so heavenly.
In the Torah, the word עֲקֵ֣ב is used in two other ways. It can depict something circuitous or even devious and my father employed every type of reasoning to elucidate Torah . עֲקֵ֣ב can also be used as the answer to a question, the “because” to the “why”. Legendary were my fathers creative and relatable metaphors to explain the conundrums in Torah. My father would unearth and improve upon scores of answers to a single famous question. He would use out-of-the-box methods to simplify the most complex issues and then explore every facet of the solution until it was so clear that he could teach it even to me.
Perhaps Yaakov’s grasping of Esau’s heel was the ultimate metaphor. The imagery of the holy twin infant desperately trying to hold back his materialistic brother so that the spiritual world would prevail is so compelling. Or, as Unkelos translates, perhaps, Yaakov was grasping Esua’s heel so that they could be connected in the best type of partnership with the material world benefitting the spiritual one. Or, perhaps, Yaakov was asserting the spiritual “because” to Esau’s earthly “why”? Either way, it was certainly a struggle between holy and mundane, the ultimate attempt to unify discipline and growth with physical prowess. We now understand why the earthly beings named Esau, yet The Divine One named Yaakov.
As the Torah continues, it describes the emerging personalities of Esau and Yaakov:
וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃
When the boys grew up, Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the fields; and Jacob, a simple man who dwells in tents.
While Esau is described as an אִ֛ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה (a man of the fields), Yaakov is described as an אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים (a man who dwells in the tents) That was my father, a “simple” Talmid chocham (man of Torah) who made every space in his life his tent of learning Torah, his Beis Medrash (Torah study hall). And, simple is not simple. There is a profundity in the ability to take something complex and make it simple. There is holiness in the consistency of a simple single-minded focus. Our forefather, Yaakov, isolated time and space for Torah within the rigors of daily living and so did my father.
Yet, Unkulos offers another explanation of אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם. He translates אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם as גְבר שְׁלִ֖ים , a complete man. Completeness describes my father’s single minded dedication to the study and teaching of Torah. Completeness explains how my father broke a difficult concept down to its most basic parts and then repacked it into a clear and cohesive Torah idea. That was the union between תָּ֔ם (simple) and שְׁלִ֖ם (complete).
Like our forefather Yaakov, my father was a יֹשֵׁ֖ב (dweller), one who never rushed his Torah. He reviewed hundreds of times, never tiring of the review and always finding relaxation and joy in his learning. I remember as a child hearing the beautiful hum of his learning and sometimes going downstairs in the wee hours of the morning trying to find a time that my father wasn’t learning.
The formation of the Hebrew letters in Yaakov depict a masmid. The letter yud is the perfected yid, the paradigm of Jew detached from the mundane floating in the heavens while all the other letters in Yaakov look like a Talmid chacham seated in beis medrash with the ayin most closely resembling my father’s posture.
In Bereishis (32::29), we read:
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
He said, Yaakov shall no longer be said, but rather Yisroel, for you have been a prince among G-d and among people and you have prevailed
Yisroel became the name of Yaakov after he struggled with the Angel of Esau. While Yaakov represents the sitting, Yisroel represents the dueling and even the dancing. So too, this posture represents my father and his gained confidence in the Torah he learned and renewed. A shy person, my father would spar with the gedolei hador (greatest scholars of our generation), never for his own ego but to distill the ultimate truth in Torah. With a twinkle in his eye and a modest but confident pose, I was told that he would spar in Torah with Rav Gifter ztL and yebadel lechaim Rav Kanievsky.
The formation of the letters in Yisroel depict the posture of the dueling and dancing Jew, beginning with the perfected yud reaching heavenward and ending with the dancing lamid, the joyful Talmid chachum.
The name Yisroel comes from כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל with the word וַתּוּכָֽל most commonly translated as “prevailed”. I would like to suggest another explanation. Perhaps וַתּוּכָֽל comes from the root י-כ-ל, of being able. Yaakov was alone and frightened as he struggled with Esau’s angel. And, through the struggle, he discovered new strength and ability. So too, my father who was the quintessential יֹשֵׁ֖ב discovered a new confidence and fortitude to stand up to other luminaries. My father often challenged others to find their own chidushim (new ideas) and to find confidence in their Torah. During shiva, we were delighted to discover that when uncovering a new chiddush, he would grab his chavrusa’s hand to dance in the Telshe Beis Medrash. That is the posture of Yisroel.
While the name Yisroel is described by the word שָׂרִ֧יתָ,(becoming a prince), it also represents the compound word ישר אֵ-ל, meaning straight to G-d. It is taking the circuitous path to the Divine and straightening it out. The name Yisroel is Yaakov’s name of the future, the name given to the Nation and to the Land of Israel. It is the designation of an entity with purpose, a paradigm of purity and purpose that can be recalled and summoned for eternity.
If we say that כשמו כן הוא (a person is described by his name), then there is something that troubles me Why wouldn’t my father’s name be Yaakov Yisroel? Chronologically, both Yaakov Aveinu and my father were Yaakov before they became Yisroel. After all, my father was noted for his hasmada (diligence in learning) more than his sparring in learning.
Like Yaakov Aveinu, my father’s name certainly was divinely bestowed by Hakosh Baruch Hu, perhaps in the order that shamayim (Heaven) viewed my father’s life. We witnessed my father’s posture with heels on the ground, the masmid in the Beis Medrash spending over a hundred hours a week learning, reviewing and reveling in Hashem’s Torah. Perhaps, Haadosh Baruch Hu saw my father first as the saar (prince) and a yashar (straight-minded) and then as the masmid with Yisroel connoting the eternity in his name, the future generation who will summon that image of the dancing masmid.
When a baby boy is born, we learn that Hakadosh Baruch Hu adjusts his posture from Din (judgement) to Rachamim (mercy) and for that we have tremendous appreciation to Hashem. Our Bracha to Refoel Yisroel Yaakov ben Yitzchok Aaron is that he grows up to follow the path of his namesake. זה הקטן גדול יהיה (may this little one become great). May he enlighten the world with the light of Torah and may he be an אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים who embodies the straight path to shamayim.