Yaakov succeeds mightily in defeating the guardian angel of Esav. In what appears as a concession speech to Yaakov, the angel admiringly asks Yaakov, מה שמך — “What is your name?”, to which Yaakov readily responds, “Yaakov”. The angel goes on to inform him that, “no longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.”
Clearly the angel was not directed to advise Yaakov of this change, as we find later upon Yaakov’s arrival in Beth-el, the Torah describes how G-d informs Yaakov, “Your name is Yaakov. Your name shall not always be called Yaakov, but Yisrael shall be your name.”
There seems to be two subtle differences between what the angel alleges and what actually took place.
In the earlier episode after ‘discovering’ Yaakov’s name, the angel states ‘that no longer, יאמר — will it be said that your name is Yaakov’, intimating it will not be uttered at all, neither by others nor by Yaakov.
In the later description, not only does G-d first clearly assert ‘your name is Yaakov’, but G-d also goes on to avows, לא יקראו — ‘Your name shall not always be called Yaakov’, implying that ‘others’ will not call you by that name, but Yaakov will still refer to, and present himself, as Yaakov.
How are we to understand the angel ‘leaking’ privileged information to Yaakov, prior to G-d conferring the title of Yisroel upon him?
The famed Limner Rav, one of the illustrious Tzaddikim and Geonim of 19th century Western Galicia, elucidates a cryptic teaching from the Holy Baal Shem Tov.
Within שקר — falsehood, dwells אמת — truth, since the numerical value of the word שקר — 600, absorbs within itself the numerical equivalent of אמת — 441. (כתר שם טוב)
The Limner Rav is baffled by this observation, since many words have a numerical value that is subsumed within the greater number of 600.
In our pursuit of self-perfection, we often rise to the challenge in overcoming our inner instincts and mastering the ability to keep the evil inclination at bay. We rightfully give ourselves credit in having achieved that level of control. Yet, therein lays the danger of being tainted, ever so subtly, with pride that often transforms into arrogance, leading to complacency and ultimately vulnerability to the tentacles of temptation.
There is only one antidote to this danger. Humility. When we realize how קטן — small, we are in our accomplishments in contrast to the levels of devotion we can achieve, we stand a chance of maintaining an intensive vigilance against the forces of smugness that wear away our strengths.
This is the depth of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching. Even as we pursue truth, we can be enveloped by our accomplishments in empowering our delusions of personal achievements that mislead us into assuming we are impervious to the temptations of pride and power, exposing us to the slippery slope of complacency. To not be consumed by falsehood we must interject a healthy dose of humility that will help us be conscious of our weaknesses stirring us to greater vigilance.
When one adds a measure of קטן — humility, which is numerically equal to 159 to the value of אמת — truth, 441, the partnership equals 600, able to stand up to its adversary שקר — falsehood which is equivalent to 600!
The guardian angel remained loyal to his charge Esav in employing a devious tactic to trap Yaakov. He emboldens Yaakov by discarding his former name rooted in the word עקב — heel, symbolic of the humblest component of our body, and injecting a sense of pride — for you have שרית — striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome, the new name ישראל rooted in the notion of שררה — authority, power, and dominion, hoping to plant the seeds of arrogance that will breed his ruin.
G-d sets the record straight by emphasizing to Yaakov to never forget his name is Yaakov, for that is his surety to remain on a healthy trajectory towards greatness, never succumbing to arrogance. In the same vein, G-d wants Yaakov to know that others will call him Yisroel, for he has succeeded in rising to unparalleled greatness, ascending to levels greater than angels.
(עזרת ישראל וישלח)
It is Yaakov who declares קטנתי, “I am humbled” מכל החסדים — considering all the kindness G-d has showered upon him, compelling him to rise even higher in debt for that relationship.
Yaakov also adds that he is feels “unworthy” מכל האמת — ‘from all the truth.” Perhaps this alludes to the ‘reality’ that although we at times attain great accomplishments in comparison to other nations, but in the realm of objective truth — the full truth, there is so much more to attain.
Yaakov never was satisfied with his sterling achievements since he felt indebted to do so much more and strived to attain a level perfection that was measured by the yardstick of pure truth.
One who realizes the possibilities will never lull into complacency.
I recently read a remarkable portrayal of this perspective on life, as evidenced by a student of the great Gaon and passionate Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Mir, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz.
During a summer vacation as he descended the steps to the beach in Netnaya during the early morning sunrise, he noticed how his Rebbe stood on a high step gazing out at the horizon. Oblivious to their presence, they overheard the Rosh HaYeshiva engaging in a conversation with himself.
“Chaim, Chaim, the Abishter granted you another day, what are you going to do with the day the Abishter gave you?
Chaim, what did you do with the day that the Abishter gave you yesterday?
Chaim, what did you do with yesterday that the Aibishter should give you yet another day?”
May we realize how indebted we are to G-d for the out of proportion benevolence He sends our way.
May we acknowledge how far we can go in raising the bar of our goals to reflect His truth.
May we never be complacent. May we never feel smug.
May we always feel privileged.
צבי יהודה טייכמאן