Our forefather Yaacov struggled and fought with the angel of his hated brother Aisav and overpowered him. The angel changed Yaacov’s name to Yisroel. Yaakov means heel, because he was holding the heel of Aisav when he was born, but the word Yaacov also has a connotation of trickery. The name Yisroel however, connotes superiority. By the angel naming him Yisroel, Aisav admitted that Yaacov indeed deserved the patriarchal blessings and did not acquire them through deceit. Later, G-d Himself also changed Yaacov’s name to Yisroel.
The Jewish people are called Bnei Yisroel – the children of Israel, for we all descend from the twelve sons of Yaacov/Yisroel. In our daily declaration of the Oneness of G-d when we say Shema Yisroel…. we are called Yisroel.
When one analyzes the spelling of the name Yisroel one will notice that the last two letters are E-L, one of the names of G-d. G-d’s name, E-l, indicates a boundless degree of mercy.
The beginning of the name Yisroel is Yisra – which means an officer. Thus, the complete meaning of Yisroel is, the officer of G-d.
Our name Yisro-el is similar to the names of many angels that also have this name of G-d attached to them, such as, Micha-el, Gavri-el,
Uri-el and Refa-el.
It is interesting that the name of our nemesis Yishmael also has the name of G-d at its end. However, as Rabbi Ahron Leib Shteinman o.b.m. points out, if look at the vowels of Yishmael you will see that the vowel that accentuates the ‘aiy’ of his name is placed under the letter ‘Ayin’ rather than the next letter ‘Aleph’ so that the name of G-d, E-l, Alef/Lamed is not evoked or expressed.
The Talmud goes a bit deeper and explains through an illustration why G-d attached His Name E-l to our name.
A king had a precious and sentimental but rather small golden chain. He was concerned that due to its modest size it might get lost or misplaced. He therefore attached and decorated his crown with this chain so that it would be on his crown near him.
G-d foresaw that his precious children, the Jewish people, would go through difficult times and would find themselves in exile dispersed throughout the four corners of the world. G-d was concern that during these trying times His precious children – the Jewish people ― may get lost and lose their connection to Him. G-d therefore attached our name to His name, the ‘crown’, so that they will be secure and watched from slipping away.
Another name that we are called is Yehudim – Jews. We assumed the name, Yehudi – Jew, after the disappearance of the Ten lost Tribes, when the majority of Jews who remained, descended from the Tribe of Yehudah.
Yehudim is also the name that the wicked Haman referred to us, and Jude was the label attached to the yellow star that the wicked Nazis ordered the Jews to display on their clothing during the Holocaust.
The word Yehuda means to admit and to offer thanks. This word describes us best. We are a people who continuously thank the Almighty and subjugate ourselves to His will.
Yehudah, who was the father of the tribe Yehuda, was named by his mother Leah to express her deep gratitude to the Almighty for giving her a fourth son, an unexpected gift.
Additionally, the name Yehuda has within it the four letters of G-d’s name, Yud, Hey, Vuv and Hey, which we may not pronounce as written, rather, we pronounce it as Adonai. The name of G-d imbedded in Yehudah symbolizes that we are invested with G-dliness, and through our righteous conduct we convey this to the world.
Today Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving. The notion that the citizens of the United States of America voluntarily offer thanksgiving to G-d for their freedoms and the benevolent services offered by the government and its citizens speaks volumes about the wonderful country we live in.
In the world the headlines are predominantly filled with hate, murder, terror, entitlement, confusion, gloom and much derision towards others. If we take pause to offer thanks to G-d and to those who benefit us, this gratefulness has the power to replace the negative state of affairs with caring, peace, compassion, respect, clarity, and optimism.
At times, one may wonder, “what impact can I make on the world?” Let’s consider, 3500 years ago, one person, our Matriarch Leah offered thanks to G-d, and as a result, her descendants are still following in her righteous ways!