Bnai Yisrael – A Name, an Identity and an Idea

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it would seem, when the name belongs to a nation like ours. Throughout history, we have been identified by different names, monikers and titles, from the time of Avraham, who was known as the Ivri, to today’s reference to us as the Jews. At times our name came through God’s directive, such as the designation Bnai Yisrael. Others reflect the disdain and hatred the nations of the world have directed towards us, expressed so often through vitriolic anti-Semitic diatribes, personified by Hitler. What we will see in this article is that references to our nation go beyond a simple label.

As Bilaam begins his first attempt at cursing Bnai Yisrael, he initially reviews the mission Balak had sent him on (Bamidbar 23:7):

“Bil'am set forth his parable, and said: "From Aram has Balak, King of Moav, brought me, out of the mountains of the east [saying]: 'Come, curse Yaakov for me; go, invoke wrath against Yisroel.”

Rashi notes the use of both “Yaakov” and “Yisroel” (ibid):

“He instructed him to curse them with both names, in case one of them was not the principal one (muvhak).”

What difference would it make which name was the principle one or not? Would this somehow affect the curse?

A few verses later (ibid 9), Bilaam describes Bnai Yisrael as, “A people which shall dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations.” The Ramban expands on the words of Bilaam (ibid):

“’….for he shall dwell alone, and there is no other nation with him that can be counted together with him, in the way that mane peoples and various nations gather together to become one camp – for these [people of Israel] all have one law (torah achas) and one ordinance (mishpat echad), and are one nation, dwelling alone by the name of Jacob and Israel.’ Therefore, he mentioned, ‘Come, curse me Jacob, and come defy Israel’, referring to them [both] by their name of honor and by the name of their ancestor, meaning to say that they are ‘a people alone’, and have names befitting them from their ancestors. ”

Again, there is the focus on the two names, Jacob and Israel –only in this instance, the Ramban is expressing these names as “befitting them from their ancestors.” What does this idea mean? Furthermore, as we know, Bilaam’s intent was to curse the Jewish nation, but instead, through God’s intervention, offered them blessing. And here, the Ramban is indicating that the blessing centered around the solitary existence the Jewish people would always face. How is this type of existence something to be ecstatic about? 

When looking at the nations and countries of the world, one is initially struck by the vast disparities between them. Languages, cultures, and governing styles are just a few of the many areas where differentiations emerge. However, while these differences may seem stark, the truth is, they are really secondary features that, when needed, can be overcome. As the Ramban notes, other nations can unite “to become one camp” – they are able to overcome these differences, shedding some of these features for the purpose of a greater unity. To some, the Jewish people are no different. We have our own language and a unique culture, among other characteristics, separating us from other nations. If this were all, then we would be able to unite with others as well. However, what makes us different is an essential concept, our philosophy and ideology. It is not just that our way of life is one that does not fit in with others. We know very well, from our vantage point, how our outlook is qualitatively distinct from the surrounding world. It is that the other nations of the world will never accept us due to this ideology. What we stand for, an existence dedicated to complete subservience to God and adherence to a system of mitzvos for our perfection, is anathema to the surrounding world. Our nation seems to have been founded with this very principle in place. Certainly, one can see that possessing this trait guarantees an ideological purity, ensuring we can never lose these pivotal foundations of our religion. Therefore, part of the very core of our religion is its inability to be absorbed into the surrounding nations. 

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in his work Kol Dodi Dofek (81-83), keys in on this very concept as it pertains to the vision of secular Zionism. He writes:

“Secular Zionism asserts that with the founding of the State of Israel, we became a people like all other peoples, and that the force of, ‘It is a people that shall dwell alone’(Bamidbar 23:9), was diminished”. He rejects this notion outright, explaining that the founding of the State of Israel “was not and will not be able to abrogate the covenant of ‘And I will take you unto Me as a people (Shemos 6:7) and put an end to shared fate, the source of Jewish aloneness”. He focuses in on the problematic conclusion arrived at by many Jews, that with the founding of the State of Israel, “the Jewish problem had been solved, that Jewish isolation had been eradicated and normality had been introduced into our existence.”

Here, the Rav is emphasizing how the state of solitude is built into the DNA of the nation. While his point references secular Zionism, his idea is a useful insight into a nearly universal sociological desire for acceptance amongst national peers. We try to fit in, we desire acceptance – and yet, it is not in the cards. We must realize that our isolation is in fact a bracha, ensuring the ideological purity necessary for the survival of our faith.

The Ramban takes this even further in his explanation of the use of the names of Yaakov and Yisrael. Each of these names evokes a different idea as it pertains to the Jewish people. What is unique about the Jewish people is how we embody the very ideology and middos personified in Yaakov even today.  When we are referred to as Bnai Yisrael, it is not simply a means of identification. It is actually conjuring up an idea about ourselves, where we reflect the same exact concepts that were adhered to by our forefathers. This is something uniquely characteristic to the Jewish people. 

We see from this explanation of the Ramban how Rashi is presenting the common approach of the world at large. In general, the name of a nation exists primarily as a practical way of identifying those people. Whether we are talking about the French, Spanish, or Canadians, their names have purely functional and utilitarian roles. Balak, then, when sending Bilaam on his mission, saw nothing substantial in the identification of the nation. Just make sure you get the more common name when you curse them – instructions reflecting an inability to see how the names of Yisrael and Yaakov are indicative of so much more. When we see ourselves as Bnai Yisrael, or the Jewish people, we look beyond the practical label needed to identify us. Rather, what we perceive about ourselves is as the nation of Yaakov, the children of Yisroel, the living embodiment of the religion and of subservience to God and His commandments.