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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
September 4, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

There are two different approaches to take to understanding this very familiar proper noun. Yisra'el (Israel) has referential meaning and inherent meaning. That is, when we say "Israel," we mean both the entity named Israel and the root meaning(s) of the word itself.Israel is the other name of our father Jacob, given when he wrestled with the nocturnal opponent before returning to his homeland. He became the father of thirteen, twelve of whom (not including his daughter Dinah) became the tribal patriarchs, giving us the name "b'nai yisra'el," Children of Israel or Israelites. The land in which those tribes were to settle became known as the Land of Israel, that is, the place where the Israelites dwell. In turn, we who are descended from the occupants of that land are known as the People Israel, "am yisra'el." And when the People Israel returned to the Land of Israel in 1948, they named the new nation the State of Israel, "medinat yisra'el." Context shines a light on which usage is intended, but no mention of Israel, however specific, is completely separate from all of the others.

What does the word itself mean? The Bible explains Jacob's new name with the phrase "for you have struggled (sarita) with God (elohim) and men." In and of itself, it is as good an explanation as any, and carries with it the authority of Torah. However, just as the many referential meanings of Israel resonate with each other, Yisra'el resonates with other root meanings.

Jacob's grandmother was named Sarai, then Sarah, and it is impossible not to hear her memory in his name. Her name means "royalty" or "ruler." The small point that changes the letter "sin" to "shin" changes the inference from struggle or royalty to directness or straight, and combined with "el" at the end of the word makes a comment on God's dependability.

In other words, the meanings and inferences of "yisra'el" are as variegated as the people who are called "yisra'el."In the immediate context, "yisrael" is paired with "amkha," meaning "Your people Israel." The phrase "r'tzei adonai eloheinu b'amkha yisrael" is a poignant plea to God to want us as much as we want God. And something more....

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