Jacob: The Paradigm of Jewish History

What it takes to become the “man of truth”

Jacob completes the period of the Patriarchs. He is the bridge between the Jewish family and the Jewish nation, where the small family group expands into a large and great people.

He is the true father of the people of Israel to an extent that cannot be said about either Abraham or Isaac. Jacob is called Israel, which is the name of the Jewish people and its homeland today.

Jacob the Man

Jacob’s life is more than a matter of history. He is the prototype of the Jewish people. Everything that happens to him is an example of what will happen in the life of the people of Israel.

Jacob is born with a twin, Esau. Even though they were twins biologically they were opposites in personality, temperament, and, ultimately, in their deeds.

Outside they looked the same. However, when they grew to adolescence Jacob went to the house of learning whereas Esau went to houses of ill repute. Esau had genes and/or a spiritual make-up that made it difficult for him to pursue a wholesome lifestyle. Jewish tradition never discounts the possibility that even someone like Esau can overcome his life challenges. Indeed, had he done so he could have become equally great. His failure is not a condemnation of his potential, his spiritual potential.

At the same time, Jacob had all the challenges a strong, handsome young man might have. Yet, unlike his twin, Jacob overcame them. He was a “pure man who dwelled in tents[1]” (Genesis 25:27) – which means that he was a good, innocent, naïve, holy person. He could have ended up a street-person like Esau, but did not.

Wrestling with God and Man

Ironically, one subtext that runs through Jacob’s life is his constant confrontation with falsehood, which on the surface does not necessarily paint him in the best light. When buying Esau’s birthright he takes advantage of the fact that he was desperate and cuts a shrewd deal (Genesis 25).

Likewise, he takes advantage of his father – albeit under his mother’s instructions — and even though he does not utter a falsehood he speaks with enough ambiguity to allow Isaac to be deceived if he wished to be deceived (Genesis 27).

Laban, his father-in-law, is the master crook and changed the contract with Jacob ten times. Jacob ends up treating him in a deceptive way. He employs means to make sure that the sheep come out the way he wants them to come out (Genesis 30). Ultimately, he leaves his father-in-law without giving him notice (Genesis 31).

Jacob does many things which do fit into our stereotype of the prototypical pure, truthful person.

This is a theological issue, not an historical one, so here is not the place to delve into it in proper detail. Nevertheless, suffice it to say that the measure of the ethical man is how he deals with the knotty, gray-areas of life, not necessarily the obvious black-and-white good vs. evil ones.

That is why the life of Jacob appears so jagged to us; the pieces do not fit. Jacob’s story is the most difficult. How come he favors Joseph over the other brothers? On the other hand, how could he not: the child grew up without a mother and showed unusual genius. Indeed, he is the one who will ultimately save them all. Jacob saw that. So he has to invest everything in him. Yet he is criticized for favoring Joseph. There are so many situations in the life of Jacob that no matter what he does he is wrong.

Jewish tradition does not hide Jacob faults – and those faults are within the Jewish people today. However, the truth is the faults are often a result of the impossibilities of life’s choices that confront each of us. We would like to have the pieces of life’s puzzle to fit. We would like to say, “Well, if you are consistent then it will all turn out perfect.” People with life experience realize that sometimes it does not work that way. Sometimes you do everything right and it turns out wrong. Then you are faced with terrible questions. The life of Jacob leaves us with the questions more than with the answers.

This can be seen in the episode of Jacob wrestling an angelic being (Genesis 32). Metaphorically, he is the man who wrestles with life’s most difficult situations. And he wrestles with them all throughout the long, dark night of exile. He cannot seem to get on top, to win, to deliver the one, final knockout blow that will declare him the indisputable champion. That, too, is part of it. Sometimes the challenge is to continue wrestling even in the face of no clear victory. Why bother, a person can tell himself? Just give up. It is too hard.

Not Jacob. He keeps wrestling. He keeps facing the questions… even if he cannot answer them all with the clarity he wishes he had. That is his greatness.

The Man of Dreams

Jacob is a man of dreams – which is not only a Jewish trait but a Jewish necessity. He is a man of vision. One of his great visions is of the ladder that stretches from Earth to Heaven (Genesis 28). That vision governs his entire life. It tells him that God is present no matter where he is.

Every person has a dream, but many times in life we discard our dreams. Some of us discard them for a moment, some for longer – some for sixty years! And some discard it their entire life.

Not Jacob. He never lost hold of his dream.

The nature of a dream is that we do not always know if it is true. Sometimes a dream is true and sometimes it is a fantasy. There is always an element of doubt. To be certain means that one is Divine.

An Oral Tradition teaches that Jacob was not perfectly sure that his dream was true. Maybe it was a fantasy. To have that doubt, no matter how miniscule, and nevertheless exert tremendous perseverance in maintaining the dream even in the face of self doubt, is an achievement.

One House, Two Worlds

In Jewish Tradition, Jacob and Esau – besides actual historical personalities – represent the conflict with the physical and the spiritual.

There is an Oral Tradition which teaches that Jacob and Esau made an agreement to divide both this world and the next. Each would have half of each world, the physical world and the spiritual world. Wealth, achievement, independence, etc. – all have their physical and spiritual counterparts. Jacob and Esau originally agreed to split everything fifty-fifty.

However, later Esau came back to Jacob and asked him to tear up the agreement. “You take the next world completely and I will keep this world completely,” he told him.

Some might have the viewpoint that Esau got the better of the deal, but Jewish tradition thinks otherwise. Jacob jumped at the suggestion. And Jewish history sides with Jacob.

Esau is a tragic figure. Overindulgence in this world to the extent that one forgets about and forfeits lasting spiritual values and the eternal rewards of the next world is nothing short of a tragedy. It is a tragedy to sell something of importance and permanence for a pot of lentils, as Esau did.

Even very good lentils.

Life and Death

Jacob dies in Egypt and his body is brought back to the Land of Israel to be buried with his forefathers in Hebron.

An Oral Tradition teaches that, as his burial procession arrives Esau shows up and challenges the contingent, claiming that the plot set aside for Jacob was really his own. One of Jacob’s grandchildren — who is deaf and not privy to the negotiations going on – takes a club and knocks off Esau’s head, causing it to roll into the cave and over the grave of his father Isaac. The imagery represents the reconciliation of the son to the father, the father to the son, and the tragedy of their lives with each other.

Despite Jewish Tradition’s negative viewpoint of Esau the fact that his head is buried in the Cave of Machpelah represents an acknowledgement that a part of him was redeemable. The body of Esau may be impure; his hands may be dirty and blood-stained, but his intentions and perhaps even some of his ideas – represented by the head – have merit.

Ultimately, the image of Esau’s head in the Cave of Machpelah suggests that even though the brothers are as different in death as they were different in life, nevertheless they are, so to speak, together in death. The twins are inexorably yoked together in this story of the Jewish people and the story of world civilization.

[1] “Dwelling in tents” means that Jacob was a studious person.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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