THE MEANING OF YISRAEL
When Jacob wrestles with the angel, his name became changed from Jacob to Israel ki sarita im elokim va’anishim vatuchal – “because you strove with G-d and man and you prevailed.” Significantly, the word used is not nilchamta, ‘you fought’ but sarita, ‘you strove’.
Rav Ahron Soloveichik (1917-2001 – brother of the more famous Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik) explains that there is a clear distinction between these terms. Nilchamta implies a conflict that entails physical force with the aim of crushing and subduing an opponent. The loser has become vanquished in the conflict. On the other hand, the term sarita, implies striving towards becoming a leader rather than a victor. It derives from the word sar, meaning prince or leader. The conflict has been decided through persuasion rather than confrontation.
There is much discussion in wider society at the moment as to the desired qualities of leaders. From a Jewish perspective, an ideal leader is someone who perseveres in attempting to bring out the good in others. A leader attempts to resolve conflicts by rising above the base issues and tries to draw out the best side in those who have opposed him.
A Jew is called a Yisrael because his historic mission is to challenge his environment by trying to bring out the highest qualities in himself and those around him. Abraham Lincoln understood this when he famously said:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Viewed in this way, the term Yisrael is not so much a name as a title that a Jew can enjoy when he rises to his destiny in bringing out the best in himself and others.