With so many people changing their names these days, it makes you wonder whether a name is just a name or whether their is a deeper significance to the names we are given.
Judaism places great importance on the naming of a child, as it is believed that one’s name represents both their connection to previous generations and to their destiny. Among Eastern European Jews, it is customary to name a child after a deceased relative as a way of honoring the ancestor as well as perpetuating their essence. To reinforce Jewish lineage, Hebrew names begin with one’s surname, followed by ben (“son of”) or bat (“daughter of”), followed by the father's full Hebrew name, and finally, the tribe of their origin. Descendants of Aaron are referred to as Koheins (high priests responsible for performing rituals in temple), descendants of Levi are referred to as Levites (spiritual leaders designated for divine service), and descendants from one of the other ten tribes are called Israelites (lay members of the community).
My birth name, Jacob Israel Liberman, is the same as my grandfather’s. I am the son of Joseph Chaim and a descendant of the tribe of Levi, hence Yaakov ben Yosef Chaim a Levi is my Hebrew name. That in and of itself sounds simply like historical information. But as I have journeyed through life, I’ve learned that “Jacob Israel” accurately describes who I am, my life’s experiences, and my purpose for being.
I could not relate to my birth name early in life; it felt like a pair of pants that were too big for me. I was called “Jackie” in elementary school and later “Jack.” In 1988, at the age of 40, I had an epiphany while attending a lecture about Biblical prophets and how they dealt with hard times. The psychiatrist speaking said that these prophets lived in the area now known as Israel, which literally means, “He who wrestles with God.”
The psychiatrist then said that after the prophet Jacob wrestled a man with preternatural strength, he was dubbed “Israel,” because he had struggled with both man and God and had prevailed. Having gone through a devastating divorce, followed by seven years of severe panic attacks, I could definitely relate to the “Jacob Israel” he described. I didn’t know it then, but in my own way, I too had wrestled with God and, in the process, learned the value of resilience.
While teaching in Israel in 1992, I had another experience that illuminated the relationship between my name and journey. While being driven to the city of Tzfat, my hosts got lost. As they pulled over to look at a map, a sliver of light appeared from behind the door of a nearby house. We knocked in hopes of getting directions. A man with long gray hair and beard answered. My host introduced himself and his wife, then told the man that I was visiting from the U.S. and that my name was Jacob Israel. The man looked deep in my eyes, said, “I have been waiting for you,” and invited us in.
For the next few hours, he explained that in Jewish mysticism, the Tree of Life is the central symbol of the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah, and that the prophet Jacob occupies the most central position on the Tree – integrating qualities of giving and receiving with heaven and earth. “Jacob,” he said, “means heel of the foot, or connection with the earth. Israel means top of the head, or connection with the heavens. In other words, Israel means to be aligned with God.”
“When Jacob became Israel,” he said, “that was the moment of his enlightenment; he realized that by keeping a direct connection with the Divine, his path would always be illuminated.” He then presented me with a beautiful Star of David he had made to remind me of these truths . Later that evening, I remembered my father always advising me to “travel the straight road.” I wondered if that was his way of reminding me to remain aligned with the source of life.