In 1947 the United Nations adopted the Partition Plan for Palestine which proposed the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in the following year. This vote approved the creation of a Jewish State, but it was still unclear exactly what this new entity would be called. The leaders of the Yishuv, (as the Jewish community in Palestine was known), debated a number of names including: State of the Hebrews, State of the Jews, State of Israel, Zion and Judea, among others. Ultimately they settled on the name Medinat Yisrael – The State of Israel, and personally I cannot imagine how it could have been anything else.
The name Israel first appears in this week’s Torah portion. Jacob prepared to be reunited with his brother by spending a night apart from the rest of his family and camp. In his solitude Jacob wrestled with a mysterious being, labelled simply by the text as ish–man (Genesis 32:25). In the morning, as the two were still locked in battle, Jacob demanded a blessing before allowing the ish to escape (Genesis 32:27). Rather than give him a blessing the ish renamed Jacob, “You will no longer be named ‘Jacob’, but ‘Israel’, for you have wrestled with divine beings and with people, and prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)
The name Israel was not received from his parents, it was given as a blessing, a mark of honour for Jacob in light of his accomplishments. He earned the name Israel after prevailing in his struggle with humans and the divine. It is a tribute which he received and which we inherit through him.
The word for ‘wrestled’ in the Hebrew text is saritah-שָׂרִיתָ. While saritah-שָׂרִיתָ is part of the name Israel- יִשְׂרָאֵל, it only appears in one other place in the whole of the Bible. When Hosea retells the story of Jacob, he uses the word to describe what happened: ‘he wrestled with God and he wrestled with an angel’ (Hoseah 12:4-5). What does it mean to wrestle with God? How can anyone wrestle with God? And how does Jacob emerge victorious after this wrestling match? The very name Israel is a constant reminder of this struggle.
When deciding on a name for the Jewish State, Israel was an appropriate choice. It is a name which we received as a communal title; we are called Bnei Yisrael – the children of Israel. But more than just a name, it is a blessing which we received.
By blessing the Jewish State with the name Israel, the state became obligated to wrestle in two senses of the word. On the one hand it was obliged to undertake a physical struggle, a fight to exist and survive – a clash which unfortunately Israel has been engaged with since its establishment. On the other hand, just as a person wrestles with their own conscience to always try to do the right thing, so too does the State of Israel seek to act according to its conscience, and be the best that it can be.