As parshat Vayishlach begins, Jacob has returned home to Canaan after 20 years in his uncle’s household in Padan-aram. A lot happened to Jacob during those 20 years: He became a husband and a father, he was successful in business and acquired considerable wealth, and he learned, through his dealings with his uncle Lavan, that it’s not nearly as much fun being tricked as it is being the one doing the tricking. Most of all, Jacob had grown up; he was no longer the young man who had fled from his brother’s not-unjustified wrath.
On the night before he is to encounter his brother Esau again, the Torah tells us, “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Jacob refuses to let the “man” go until he has blessed him, and he is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”
Sometime later, God appears to Jacob and says, “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” Jacob’s new name is proof from God that he had, in fact, changed.
Jacob’s name (Yaakov) was formed from the word akeiv, heel, because he was born grasping his brother’s heel. Rashi says the name indicates one who comes under cover and with guile, a trickster; the new name, Israel, denotes a prince and a ruler. Jacob had earned a name to be proud of.
So what is surprising is that the Torah continues to use the name Jacob. In fact, it appears much more frequently than “Israel.” From the moment that God changes the names of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, only their new names are used. Yet Jacob never loses his original name.
Why? Perhaps to teach us that while we can and hopefully do change and grow, we never completely eradicate our former selves. Certainly, anyone over 30 has at least one thing in his or her past — something stupid, reckless, cruel, or thoughtless — that we wouldn’t want to make public. But these are the things you can’t erase from your memory.
When we grow up, when we become responsible adults, we learn from those mistakes and try hard not to repeat them. And perhaps the painful memory of our past mistakes helps us to think twice before we make new ones.
For Jacob-Israel, one sign that he had learned and changed was his new name. But still, the Torah reminds us, Jacob remains a part of Israel. Like our father Jacob, each of us is the sum of all our past experiences, the positive and the negative. Decent, mature, menschlich people work hard to avoid repeating their negative experiences and enhance and expand the positive ones.
And just maybe — as when Israel looked back at Jacob — when we look back at the stupid things we did in years past and see how far we have come, it can inspire us to go still farther.