Names play a significant role in Jewish thought. A cursory glance at the names given to the twelve tribes signifies the importance of each name. Noach, Moshe, and Yitzchak had their names chosen to commemorate events surrounding their births. And of course, the Torah records many instances where a name was changed, signifying a change in the status of the person. Of our three patriarchs, Abraham and Yaakov both had their names changed by G-d. Only Yitzchak remained Yitzchak his entire life.
While both Abraham and Yaakov had their names changed, there is a significant difference between their new names. In the case of Abraham, one letter (heh) was added to the name Abram to confer upon him his new identity as the father of a horde of nations (17:5). Yaakov, on the other hand, received a totally new name, Yisrael. Furthermore, once Abraham received his new name, he was commanded that “no longer shall you be called Abram” (17:5). Yet despite the fact the Torah says, “your name Yaakov you will not be called anymore” (35:10), Yaakov's old name is used interchangeably with his new name, Yisrael.
An analysis of the lives of our patriarchs will shed light on the variants in the names of our founding fathers. Abraham's life was dedicated to the spreading of the name of G-d, and the message of ethical monotheism. He never wavered from this goal, and all events in his life relate to this theme. When we first meet Abraham, he has already recognized the Master of the Universe. With that initial transformation complete, Abraham’s remaining years—those described in the Torah—are devoted to teaching the world about G-d, justice and righteousness. Just prior to the mitzvah of brit milah, G-d makes a token change to Abram's name, signifying the physical change that is the norm for every Jewish male child.
Yitzchak spent his life copying the ways of his father. He recognized that Abraham's radical new teachings needed a generation to solidify. He lived in the same places and dug the same wells as his father. This lack of change from one generation to the next is symbolized by having Yitzchak's name remain constant throughout his life. It was the generation of Yaakov/Yisrael in which the history of the Jewish people was finally assured. All of his 13 children remained within the Jewish fold, something that cannot be said of either his parents or grandparents. It was Yaakov and his children who initiated the Egyptian exile, which was a necessary precondition for the maturation and development of the Jewish people. It is not a coincidence that we are known as B’nei Yisrael.
The names Yaakov and Yisrael are practically contradictory, and represent different aspects of the father of B’nei Yisrael. Yaakov, derived from the word eikev, heel, represents his lowly state, his problems with his brother, his being taken advantage of by his uncle, even his children deceiving him. At every stage of his life, there was somebody to step all over him, somebody to take advantage of him. The name Yisrael, on the other hand, was given to him because “You have become great before G-d and man. You have won” (32:29). Despite his trials and tribulations, despite the fact that “the days of my life have been few and hard” (47:9), Yaakov truly did win. He became a man of integrity (“give truth to Jacob”) who, despite numerous setbacks, succeeded in raising the men who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. He was no longer a heel, an ekev, to be stepped on, but was the prince of G-d (sar el).
Significantly, Yaakov's name change to Yisrael came about only after a struggle through the night with a stranger whose name he did not even know. The growth necessary to become a servant of G-d is only possible if we struggle and meet the challenges of the world head-on. Yet despite being chosen for a great mission, despite defeating all enemies, one must never forget where one comes from. Too often, people who have made a success of their life forget their roots, their humble beginnings, and their obligation to help those who are still downtrodden. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah continues to use the name Yaakov interchangeably with Yisrael. The greatness of Yisrael is that he never forgot that he was born Yaakov. Yes, like Yaakov, the struggle may cripple us, but that is the only way to become great before G-d and man. We may not win every battle, but by continuing to struggle to do what is right, we take our rightful place as B’nei Yisrael.