This Shabbos we read Parshas Vayichi. The Parsha begins with the last 17 years of the life of Jacob, after he was reunited with Joseph in Egypt. The Torah begins with the following two verses: “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years, and his life span was… And the days of Israel came close to an end,… (Genesis 47:28-29). The obvious question is, if verse 28 and verse 29 are both referring to the same person, why is he called Jacob in one verse and Israel in the next?
The classis commentator Ohr Hachaim offers the following beautiful thought. We know that the Jewish people are sometimes referred to as the house of Jacob, and sometimes as the house of Israel. The Zohar tells us that when we do the will of Hashem we are called Yisroel or Israel; while when we don’t we are called Yaakov, or Jacob. However, this can’t apply to the Patriarch Jacob, who was a righteous person, and always did the will of Hashem.
The Ohr Hachaim explains that the name Yisroel or Israel is given to Jacob when he is on a higher level. At such times, the person experiences immense joy from the closeness to Hashem. Worry, nervousness, depression and any similar feelings are not found in such a state. This is similar to the level found by all Jews on Shabbos, as we mark the day with joy and delight, far from all pressure and depression. When Jacob is on this higher level, serving Hashem with joy, he is called Israel. When Jacob was on a lower level, feeling any sort of sadness, then he is referred to as Jacob.
The Ohr Hachaim proceeds to go through many examples of this. When Rebecca dies, and so too when Rachel dies, and Jacob is in mourning, he is called Jacob. (Genesis 35:20). When the period of mourning is over, he goes to the name Israel (Genesis 35:21).From when Joseph is sold, almost always he is called Jacob, as he is in a state of pain and sadness. After Joseph is found to be alive, he returns to be called Israel (Genesis 45:28). Once Jacob comes to Egypt and lives in exile, he is called Jacob, except for the actual moments that he is reunited with Joseph, when he is called Israel.
Jacob is called Jacob in the beginning of the verse as he is whenever he is in exile. As he approaches his time of death, and the soul strengthens itself, he then switches to be called Israel.
The beautiful lesson that we learn from this whole change of names is how the very same person moves from one level to another. The more we can focus on being happy with what we have, having satisfaction in serving Hashem, feeling trust in the Almighty, the more we come to a level of being an Israel. The more we allow ourselves to slip into a mode of nervousness, of feeling down, or of feeling sad, we allow our own level to slide down.
It is well known the saying of the Ari z”l that all the great levels of holiness that he attained were only achieved because of the great joy he felt every time he did a mitzvah. The importance of focusing on feeling joy in our life as we serve Hashem is underscored tremendously by the lesson of the two names of Jacob and Israel. We must constantly ask ourselves, “Am I living like a Jacob or am I striving to be an Israel?”