By Shlomo Riskin ~
“He said, it was because his name was Jacob that he has outwitted me these two times.” (Genesis 27: 36)
This week’s portion begins with Jacob’s leaving his parents’ home in Beersheba and setting out for exile in the home of his uncle, Laban. Our portion will conclude 22 years later, when he begins his journey back. Jacob falls in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel, and 11 of his children are born there. These are the most crucial years of his development, when he is at the height of his physical strength and laying the foundations for future generations.
Strangely, the Jacob whom we see in Vayetze is quite different from the Jacob we first got to know in Toldot, which we read last week. Jacob as a young boy was naïve, whole-hearted, and scholarly; a dweller in tents; the antithesis of his brother Esau, a wily hunter and devotee of the fields. Jacob is interested in continuing the Abrahamic birthright; Esau is far more moved by material acquisitions. Hence, Esau gladly gives up his familial birthright for lentil porridge when he returns, famished, from the hunt.
When Isaac summons Esau to receive the familial blessing and birthright, and Rebekah cajoles Jacob into pretending to be Esau so that he may receive the birthright, a furious and disappointed Esau vows to kill his brother – so Rebekah and Isaac send him to Uncle Laban.
In the beginning of this portion, Jacob dreams the great dream of the Abrahamic covenant; a ladder linking heaven to earth, ascending and descending angels, with the Almighty promising that his descendants will inherit the Land of Israel and will bring blessing to the world. He works seven years for Laban for the hand of Rachel, and after he is deceived under the nuptial canopy, and forced to marry Leah, he agrees to work another seven years for Rachel, with nary a complaint. Indeed, Jacob remains a dweller in (scholarly) tents, rather than an aggressive outdoorsman.
But as the portion of Vayetze develops, a new Jacob emerges. He puts his mind to animal husbandry, amassing much livestock for his employer, Laban. When his beloved son Joseph is born, he threatens to leave and return to Israel, only agreeing to remain with Laban for a partnership, or at least a share of the profits.
Laban cuts a deal, but Jacob cleverly succeeds in manipulating the livestock so that he emerges with great wealth. The ultimate expression of Jacob’s transformation comes in another dream, in which instead of ascending and descending angels, Jacob sees ringed, spotted and speckled sheep (Gen. 30:25- 43; 31:10-14). Voila! Jacob has out-Esaued and out-Labaned his brother and his uncle! __How and why does this happen? Did Jacob forget about the birthright, and block out the Abrahamic covenant, in order to secure his own version of lentil soup?
I believe the issue is far more complex, and harks back to Abraham, and the confused legacy he bequeathed to his sons. Our children watch us carefully to perceive our deepest values and desires. They learn not from what we say so much as from how we act and whom we admire. Abraham was chosen by God to be a blessing to the world because he discovered ethical monotheism, and would teach succeeding generations compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen. 18:18,19). This is the familial birthright and Abrahamic covenant.
But Abraham was also a wealthy cattleman, military hero and highly respected leader. He had a first-born son, Ishmael, who was an aggressive conqueror, who feared no man. He also had the religious, righteous and introspective Isaac. Abraham is naturally drawn to this wild and ebullient firstborn, and when God informs him of the impending birth of Isaac – Abraham suggests “Would that Ishmael walk before You.” God blesses Ishmael at Beer-lahai-roi, and Isaac remains obsessed by this place all his life; he is constantly going back and forth from there (Gen. 24:62). Despite the fact that God tells Abraham “through Isaac shall your seed be called,” Isaac lived under the dark suspicion that his father really preferred Ishmael, and hoped that the akeda would completely remove him, Isaac, from the scene.
In a similar fashion, the more passive Isaac was drawn to the more aggressive Esau, which is why he initially summons Esau for the birthright and the blessings. Jacob desperately yearns for his father’s love – and perhaps for that reason is quick to heed his mother’s advice. After all, the Abrahamic legacy includes material success, military prowess and aggressive leadership. Thus he decides to assume not only the garb but also the inner characteristics of Esau. In the aftermath of his deception, he indeed becomes Esau!
In time, Jacob understands that while the voice of Jacob may require the hands of Esau, the true essence of Jacob/Israel must remain the God of compassionate righteousness and moral justice, bringing true blessing to the world. Jacob will yet turn into Israel and reclaim his legacy of the Abrahamic covenant as a whole-hearted man and scholarly dweller in tents, but he will also have learned the art of conquest and mastery.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.