Every test in life makes us bitter or better, every problem comes to break or make us. The choice is ours whether we become Victim or Victor!
The Torah relates the trials and tribulations of our ancestors in order for us to take heed and learn from them. Even in the 21st century there are age old lessons that we can apply to our lives in order to come out as the victor.
Each of us faces many disappointments, frustrations and losses throughout life. In order to avoid sinking into despair, we must learn to be spiritual warriors. Our forefather Avraham showed us the way. He was commanded by G-d to, “Go,” Lech Lecha – literally, go to your true self. This meant leaving “his birthplace, his social milieu and his father’s home” (Bereishit 12:1). Avraham’s son Yitschak faced his big test at the altar. His son Yaakov led a life full of tests and tribulations ultimately leading to the setting up of the twelve tribes and commencement of Am Yisrael as a multifaceted nation.
Out of all our fathers, Yaakov was the only one whose name was changed by G-d whilst still keeping his previous name.
Put your hand on the back of your head. In Hebrew, this area is called the Oref, it is where our “reptilian brain” resides. Fully functional at six months in utero, it is responsible for satisfying our physical needs, such as food, touch, stimulation and material comforts. However, the Hebrew word Oref has the same letters as the name Pharaoh, and also as the word for “wild,” Paruah. When our Pharaoh-brain dominates, we cannot bear discomfort or deprivation and insist on getting our desires satisfied now, at all costs, even if it means hurting others or indulging in addictive substances or behaviours.
Hold your hands over your ears. Between the two hands, embedded in mid-brain, is a plum-sized mechanism known as the limbic system. It is responsible for getting our emotional needs satisfied; i.e. to feel loved, validated, understood and important. By the age of five, our basic emotional patterns are firmly in place, telling us whether we are lovable or unworthy, capable or incompetent, and whether we can trust people or must be fearful of contact. If we were criticized and disciplined severely in childhood, we became “addicted” to negative mood states, such as anxiety, jealousy, sadness or anger. The limbic system is loyal to childhood beliefs. Some are good, such as “brush teeth after meals,” and some are destructive, like, “I need constant attention and praise.”
Together, the reptilian brain and the limbic system make up the lower brain. In this realm, there is no free will—only automatic, instinctive responses based on genetic destiny and socio-cultural conditioning. This is where children – and many adults – spend most of their thinking time! This is why we are told, “Every emotional thought of man is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:2 and 6:5), for the lower brain imprisons us with its primitive impulses and fears. Thankfully, we also have another area of the brain, called the cortex.
Put your hand on your forehead. This is where the cortex, our executive centre, is located. It is our choice centre, which allows us to liberate ourselves from the primitive responses of the lower brain. While the lower brain develops on its own, it takes discipline to develop the cortex. A disciplined mind allows us to respond with logic, delay gratification, anticipate the consequences of our behaviour, focus on long-range goals and empowers us to bring holiness into the world.
The cortex does not reach maximum cellular growth until age twenty! Thus, the lower brain has a huge head start and has determined most of our habits and beliefs long before we had any choice in the matter. This is why our addictions and prejudices persist so tenaciously despite our efforts to free ourselves from their grip. This fact also explains why Torah law does not hold us responsible in certain areas until age twenty.
Thus, the brain is a war zone, with different voices fighting for dominance.
Yaakov experienced and manifested this battle in essence throughout his life. From the outset, even within the womb he was twinned with a brother that would fight and contest him all the way. Yaakov emerged clinging on to Eisav’s heal signifying he would not give up. He became an Ish Tam trying to choose a simple life concentrating on Torah and mastering his characteristics. Yet his life was full of tests and challenges.
These trials and tribulations reached a pinnacle when Yaakov’s name was changed.
Eisav together with four hundred generals had set out to kill Yaakov. On the night before their meeting, Yaakov found himself alone and was attacked by the angel of Eisav. The Torah relates that they wrestled which “raised dust up to the Supernal Throne”. It was not only a physical battle but a cosmic struggle between two nations and two worlds — the spirituality of Israel and the materiality of Edom.
As dawn broke, Eisav’s angel conceded and Yaakov would not let him go until he blessed him.
He informed Yaakov that his name would be changed to Yisrael.
“No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the divine and with man and have overcome.” (Bereishit 32:29)
The angel had no power to change his name; rather he was only informing him of the future that G-d would change his name. This came true: “G-d said to him, ‘Your name is Yaakov. Your name shall not always be called Yaakov, but Yisrael should be your name.’ Then he called his name Yisrael.”
What’s interesting to note is that whilst G-d changed Avram’s name to AvraHam – Yaakov was at the same time given a new name whilst being told to keep the old one.
The Gemara Berachot 13 relates that Bar Kapara said anyone who calls Avraham by his original name Avram, has transgressed a Mitsvat Asei (positive commandment) whereas Rabbi Eliezer held he has transgressed a negative commandment.
Why the difference between Yaakov and Avraham?
Avraham was not the first person to ever live. He had a clear lineage of twenty generations to Adam. His father Terach was an idol worshipper. In order to begin the Jewish nation, there needed to be a change. The letter “Heh” was added to symbolise G-d.
Avraham was the first to recognise and spread belief in G-d whilst surrounded by an environment full of idol worship.
Born as Avram, G-d now entirely changed his name to Avraham. Not allowing anyone to call him by his previous name symbolised that the Jewish nation was now beginning from him.
Yaakov on the other hand was grandson of Avraham and son of the holy Yitschak. He did not represent a new nation.
When Yaakov was born the Torah tells us that Vayikra Shemo – he called his name Yaakov. The Rabbis explain that it was G-d that called him this name. A name granted by G-d never changes.
But he led a challenged life. To symbolise his success and complete control over the physical world, many years later when he was able to beat the angel of Eisav he earned a second name. This too was granted directly by G-d.
Hence he kept both names.
The Chatam Sofer (Drashot vol. I, p. 57) explains that the angel of Esav is the Satan, and in order to vanquish the power of the Satan, we need these two names – Yaakov and Yisrael, since their Gematria (numerical value) together is Kera Satan (tear the Satan).
Yaakov led the way for future generations, teaching us that although your name is G-d given, you can achieve through life’s tests even greater heights than you ever expected. There is always room to grow. Each decision we make, every step we take in the right direction has an effect.
You are not the victim of the world, but rather the master of your own destiny. It is your choices and decisions that determine your destiny – be the Victor!