The Rabbi's Study

Deepening Yaakov’s Divide

In two places in Parashat Vayishlah Yaakov is told his name will no longer be Yaakov: first in his wrestling match, and then later upon finally returning from his time away to the same place at which he had his dream of the ladder and God appears to him. In both of these verses the text declares that his name will only be Yisrael, yet in both separate instances, the Torah continues to refer to him as Yaakov exclusively in this Torah portion, until…

The Death of Rachel by Gustav Metz

Rahel died; she was buried on the road to Efrat, that is Beit Lehem. Yaakov stood a standing-stone over her grave; it is the standing-stone on Rahel’s grave even today. Yisrael journeyed; he pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. (Genesis 35:19-21)

She was his everything. Falling in love with Rahel was the product of a great trauma, and it led to a great trauma. Yet Yaakov always continued to love Rahel and her death must have been the source of another great trauma. We see as much in how Yaakov is so deeply devoted to Yosef and Binyamin, Rahel’s sons. Yaakov, so committed to Rahel and so bound up in his own trauma, is metaphorically left standing at Rahel’s grave; while his alter-ego, Yisrael, is able to journey onward.

So what is the significance of the term “journeyed,” and why is the name Yisrael employed for the journey but not for the burial of Rahel?

The Netziv proposes:

Yisrael journeyed – in order to counteract his pain from Rahel’s death, so he went to seek cleaving and solitude, as is the way of Yisrael.

The journey is an act of self consolation, and Yaakov – more and more overcome by his Shadow – is only able to experience his true Self when he expresses the Persona of Yisrael. And so, in order to explore this new Persona, he must go into solitude and isolation, just as he was alone when he first encountered the Persona of Yisrael in the wrestling match. The Torah refers to Yisrael as his name (excluding references to the “Children of Yisrael,” or the “Tribes of Yisrael,” et al) nearly 100 times in the final third of the Book of Genesis – when the name Yisrael is used, he expresses clarity and hope, the burdens of his pain and trauma do not prevent him from acting. When the name Yaakov is used, he expresses doubt and pessimism, and feels his sorrow.

This moment, following the death of Rahel and the juxtaposition of the first reference to Yisrael as his name, is when Yaakov/Yisrael is divided between the two personalities, never to be unified. This trauma, which will not be his last, will prove to be the most damaging.

And the Midrash records his experience to be as such:

Rabbi Yohanan said: “Rahel died on me,” (Gen. 48:7) means that Yaakov Avinu is saying that ‘Rahel’s death is more difficult for me than any of the struggles which I have experienced.’

For the Netziv, Yisrael’s journey is spiritual, so where does the physical journey take him? Back to his father, Yitzhak. And the Torah tells us:

Yitzhak expired and died and was gathered to his people, old and of sated days; and he was buried by Esav and Yaakov, his sons. (Genesis 35:29)

The remainder of the Torah portion deals exclusively with the lineage of Esav. Yisrael is symbolically left journeying for his true Self; his name being second despite having the legal and spiritual right to the status of firstborn, Yaakov steps closer into the totality of his Shadow by stepping into the burial cave interring his father next to Avraham – knowing that the beginning of his trauma was in serving to Esav the mourner’s meal of lentil stew intended for Yitzhak who had been burying his father Avraham.

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