The beginning of an answer to the above question can be found in the Hebrew name of our people, Yisrael. Our name contains the sacred Divine name E-l, and we are forbidden to pronounce this sacred Divine name as a separate word, unless it appears in a verse from our Sacred Scriptures or in a verse from our traditional prayers. Our sages explain that E-l is one of the Divine names which refers to the Divine attribute of compassion (Mechilta 3:2); thus, this Divine name can be translated as, “the Compassionate One.”
The first part of our name, Yisra, comes from the root sarah – a term which refers to being in a higher position and ruling. Our name Yisrael therefore refers to the Compassionate One Who is above all and rules over all. This name of our people first appears in the verse where the angel tells our father, Jacob, that his name will be called Yisrael (Genesis 32:29). In his commentary on this verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
“Yisrael stems from the root sarah, one aspect of the concept of rule – viz., that of being superior, greater. Yisrael, then, literally means: God towers above all.”
This name of our people serves as a reminder that the Compassionate One is above all and rules over all, including the human being! This message was forgotten by most of humankind, and the Torah records that Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, began to proclaim this message to a selfish and corrupt world where human beings worshiped themselves, their wealth and their power. For example, in the era of Abraham, we find the wealthy city of Sodom which was known for its refusal to do acts of “tzedekah” – the sharing of resources with those in need. As the Prophet Ezekiel later proclaimed:
“Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
In Sodom, the human being was viewed as the owner of his wealth and resources. Abraham, our father, revealed to the King of Sodom the name of the true Owner of all resources, when he proclaimed to the king, “I lift up my hand to the Compassionate One, God, the Most High, Owner of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22). The awareness of the true and compassionate Owner of the universe caused Abraham to realize that he was only a custodian of his wealth; thus, he gave over to his children the mandate “to keep the way of the Compassionate One - to practice tzedekah” (Genesis 18:19). This awareness also inspired Abraham to address the Compassionate One as “Ado-nai” - the Master of All (Genesis 15:2). According to the Torah, Abraham was the first person to address the Compassionate One by this sacred Divine name –a name which we only pronounce when reading a biblical verse or traditional prayer.
Our name Yisrael – the Compassionate One is above all and rules over all - – expresses the raison d’etre of our people. As we explained in previous letters, the task of our people is to do a “tikun” – fixing – of the original sin of the human being in the Garden of Eden. We mentioned that the central mandate of the human being is to serve as the custodian of the earth and its resources; thus, the human being was placed in the Garden “to serve it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). The human being, however, began to view himself as the owner of the earth and its resources. To this arrogant human being, there is no “forbidden fruit”; for he views everything and everyone in creation as an object that exists for his selfish gratification. This arrogant and selfish attitude led to the loss of the Garden.
As the people called Yisrael, we are to do a tikun for this sin by demonstrating that the Compassionate One is the true Owner of the earth and that human beings are only the custodians. We were therefore given a twofold mission which is based on the original mission given to humankind. As our tradition teaches, the mission to “serve and protect” the Garden is a prototype for all the mitzvos – Divine mandates – which were given to the People of Israel through the Torah (Tikunei Zohar 55). The mandate to “serve” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos aseh – the mandates which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves. And the mandate to “protect” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos lo sa'asay - the mandates which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world - including ourselves. Through dedicating ourselves to this higher Divine purpose, we actualize the potential within our name, Yisrael, as we become a people who proclaim that the Compassionate One is the Owner and Sovereign of the world.
When all human beings accept the truth of this message, they will recognize that they were created to serve the higher Divine purpose. Since human beings were created in the Divine image, they fulfill this purpose through emulating the Divine compassion and concern for all creation. In their role on earth, human beings must remember that they are not Divine, but that they have the potential to become godlike by going in the Divine ways.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The greatest praise that we can offer the Compassionate One is to proclaim through our deeds the elevating message of our name, Yisrael. In this spirit, the Compassionate One proclaimed:
“This people I fashioned for Myself that they might declare My praise.” (Isaiah 43:21)
As Rabbi Hirsch explains, our task is to praise the Compassionate One by developing a loving and just society through fulfilling the mandates of the Compassionate One in all areas of our existence.
2. The Torah records that the Just One directly told Jacob, “Yisrael shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10). Citing this verse, the Midrash teaches:
All Yisrael is called by His name. At that hour, the Holy One, Blessed be He, sanctified Yisrael for His name, as it is written (Isaiah 49:3),”You are My servant, Yisrael, in whom I take glory.” (Midrash Tanchuma on Leviticus, Kedoshim 2)
3. The following are direct links to related articles:
“My Firstborn Child” – Israel’s Story as the Human Story:
The Beginning of Our Story:
Our Universal Birthday:
4. The archive of our current series has been updated. The archive can be found on our website: