Following Yaakov’s reunion and reconciliation with his brother Esav, he travels to the city of Shechem, where his daughter (Dina) is raped by a man named Shechem (34:1-31). After his sons, Shimon and Levi, avenge Shechem’s transgression, Yaakov is ordered to return to Bet-El to thank G-d for saving him from Esav’s wrath (35:1). Why does Yaakov need to make the journey back to Bet-el to thank G-d when he could have thanked him from anywhere? Further, when Yaakov goes back to Bet-el, he renames it El-bet-el (35:7). What is the significance of changing the name?
The Malbim introduces two concepts to address our questions. First, Yaakov committed to making Bet-el a place for G-d by building an altar, as long as He took care of him (28:22). Now that everything worked out, Yaakov must return to Bet-el to honor his word. Second, the Malbim explains that when we thank G-d for a past event, it is only natural to include with it a request to replicate or extend that good fortune in the future. Yet Yaakov chose to honor G-d’s kindness toward him without any expectations. This approach may explain why Yaakov renamed the settlement “El-bet-el”: If “Bet-el” translates to “House of Godliness,” where good things happen, then “El-bet-el” is the recognition that G-d created this world where goodness happens.
Yaakov’s gratitude for G-d’s abundance of kindness that helped him reach that point, without the expectation of future kindness, is what set him apart from others and sets an example for us to follow. Decoupling the past and the future helps us truly appreciate the present.