“The Transformation of Jacob”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Vayeitzei, continues the fascinating story of the patriarchal family of Isaac and the saga of the complex relationship between Esau and Jacob that we first learned of in last week’s parasha, Toledot.

In parashat Toledot we are told that when Esau discovers that Jacob has deceived their father Isaac by disguising himself as Esau and had taken Esau’s blessing, Esau lets out a bitter cry in the presence of his father (Genesis 27:36), “Hachee kara sh’mo Yaacov, va’y’akvay’nee zeh pa’amayim?” Was he really called Jacob because he has deceived me twice? He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing! To calm his son, Isaac gives Esau a substitute blessing, but Esau is filled with rage and resentment and threatens to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies.

Rebecca, their mother, is traumatized by Esau’s threat, and advises Jacob to flee to her brother Laban, who lives in Charan, and to remain there until Esau’s anger passes. Rebecca says mournfully (Genesis 27:45), “Why should I be bereaved of you both in a single day?”

Now, who is this Jacob? And how did he get into such a bind? Our sages see Jacob in differing ways. Rashi (the foremost commentator on the Bible 1040-1105) explains Jacob’s deceptive actions by claiming that Jacob very much did not wish to deceive his father, but could not refuse his mother, Rebecca. Other commentaries present positive explanations of Jacob’s behavior and character as well. However, many other commentaries come down hard on Jacob, charging him with unseemly behavior, saying that he and the Jewish people paid a heavy price for his deception. If that is the case, how is it that Jacob maintains such an esteemed position and is revered as a Patriarch of the Jewish people?

From the time of conception, Jacob tried to supplant Esau. The Torah tells us (Genesis 25:22), “Va’yit’roh’tzetzu ha’banim b’kirbah,” the fetuses were struggling in Rebecca’s belly. The Talmud tells us that the pain that Rebecca experienced was due to the fact that when Rebecca would pass a place of Torah learning, Jacob would try to get out, and when she would pass a place of idol worship, Esau would try to get out. An alternate view offered by the commentaries is that the twins were already struggling with one another over their future material inheritance. This struggle does not appear to be simple sibling rivalry, but rather a manifest confrontation that was divinely ordained.

When Rebecca gives birth to twins, Esau comes out first, followed by Jacob. Once again there is a clear indication of the rivalry. Scripture relates that at the time of the delivery (Genesis 25:26), “V’yadoh ochezet ba’akev Esav,” that literally before Jacob breathes his first breath of air, he is holding on to Esau’s foot, trying to prevent Esau from emerging first. The Torah then tells us (Genesis 25:26), “Vayikra sh’mo Yaacov,” He calls his name Jacob. This verse is unclear. Surely the child is called Jacob, but who calls him Jacob? On the surface, it seems obvious that it is Isaac who names the child. But the verse is ambiguous enough to allow our rabbis to suggest that perhaps it is the Al-mighty himself who calls the child Jacob. G-d sees the child holding on forcefully to his brother’s foot, and calls the boy Jacob, “the supplanter” “the deceiver.”

What is the nature of the struggle with which Jacob seems to be consumed already at birth? Does it stem from jealousy? Is it the result of a competition for honor? Is it for love or for recognition that Jacob is trying to supplant his brother? Surely, it’s not simply a faux pas, a misjudgment on the part on Jacob.

In fact, it is a fulfillment of a Divine prophecy. We know this from the fact that in pregnancy, when Rebecca experiences unusual pain, scripture informs us that she tried to discover the cause of her suffering. (Genesis 25:22): “Lamah zeh anochi?” She asks. We are then told that Rebecca is informed through prophecy that there are two great nations in her womb, and two great peoples in her bowels, (Genesis 25:23) “U’l’om mil’om ye’ematz,” and these two people will struggle. Obviously, the struggle is Divinely ordained! Jacob legitimately deserves to lord over Esau because the prophecy predicts (Genesis 25:23) “V’rav ya’avod tza’ir,” that the younger one will supplant the older, and that the older is destined to be subservient to the younger.

The Torah then informs us of the devious means that Jacob used to fulfill the prophecy of lording over Esau. He takes unfair advantage of Esau by giving him lentils when he is starving, in return for his birthright. Jacob then proceeds to deceive his own father, by dressing up as Esau, and with his mother’s help, taking away Esau’s blessing. The patriarch Isaac, in fact, actually confirms that this is an act of deception when he says to Esau, (Genesis 27:35) “Bah ah’chicha b’mir’mah,” your brother has come with deception. If Jacob is indeed the deceiver, what does it mean when the Torah describes Jacob as an (Genesis 25:27) “Ish tam, yoshev ohalim,” an innocent person, dwelling in tents. Perhaps Jacob is playing the role of an innocent, but it’s really an act that is part of a great deception.

At this point in the story, however, the deception has backfired. Jacob is on the run. Rebecca sends him to her brother, Laban, to Charan. Now, why does Rebecca send Jacob to, of all people, Laban? Perhaps, what Rebecca in effect is telling her son: Jacob, you wish to be a deceiver? You really want to learn how to be deceptive? I suggest then, that you go to the master, to Laban. From Laban at least you’ll learn how to master the art of deception correctly, and get away with it, and still come out on top. Or, perhaps, Rebecca is telling Jacob: You think that deceit is the way to solve your problems? Laban will show you what it feels like to be on the receiving end of deceit, to be deceived of everything, your wife, Rachel, your salary and your property!

As Vayeitzei, this week’s Torah portion opens, Jacob departs Canaan, and on the way dreams a dream. He dreams of a ladder with angels going up and down. Jacob, deeply moved by this spiritual vision, erects a monument, and calls the name of the place Bet-El, which means house of G-d. Jacob, in effect, is saying, I’m in the “growth mode.” Enough of this deception! I’m in the process of transforming myself into a proper, honorable gentleman. I must change from being a totally material person and transform myself into a spiritual being. Although Jacob arrives in Charan with a heightened desire to be spiritually transformed and uplifted, he is immediately confronted by reality–life with Laban.

Now, who is Laban? We soon learn from the biblical text that Laban is not very well liked, at least by the shepherds. In fact, when Jacob asks the shepherds “How is Laban?” they say, in effect, “Bug off. Here come his daughters, ask them.” Laban is really the epitome of a shyster, a notorious con man. After Jacob is introduced to Laban and his family, things deteriorate. Jacob is abused by Laban. Laban says to Jacob: (Genesis 29:15) Just because you’re my brother, are you to work for me for nothing? And you guessed it, Jacob then basically works for nothing. Jacob spells out the terms of his work contract, making certain to dot every “i” and cross every “t,” but Laban quickly changes everything. Even at Jacob’s proposed wedding to Rachel, Laban switches the handmaidens and his daughters and deceives Jacob of his beloved bride.

After working for 14 years to pay off his commitment, Jacob remains with Laban in Charan and has a houseful of children. When Joseph is born, Jacob approaches Laban to take leave. Laban acknowledges that all his good fortune is due to Jacob’s diligent work, and asks Jacob to name his price for remaining. Jacob suggests: You, Laban, take all the fine white sheep, and I’ll keep the spotted, speckled and striped sheep–the inferior sheep. Laban, again, pulls a fast one on Jacob. He removes all the spotted and the speckled sheep from his flocks, and moves them to a location three days journey away. Poor Jacob now has no chance of ever breeding spotted and speckled sheep, and will soon be left with nothing. Jacob responds by engaging in creative reproductive techniques, using peeled bark sticks, which results in the white sheep bearing spotted and speckled sheep. Jacob becomes enormously wealthy, and Laban’s sons are consumed with jealousy. They claim that Jacob has stolen their father’s property and wealth.

G-d tells Jacob that it’s time to leave Charan, and return to Canaan. Jacob summons his wives, Rachel and Leah, to the field, because he doesn’t trust Laban — the tents are presumably bugged! At this “family conference,” Jacob tells his wives of his most recent dream. He informs them that he dreamt of spotted and speckled sheep mounting each other, and bearing offspring. Jacob has clearly been transformed. After spending 21 years in Laban’s house, Jacob’s dreams are no longer spiritual–of angels ascending and descending the ladder–the dreams of a person who wants to outgrow his propensity for deception. Rather, his dreams are the dreams of a mercenary. Jacob dreams about spotted and speckled sheep. He’s obsessed with the wealth he’s gained. And after 21 years with Laban, Jacob has not really changed. Once again, Jacob flees stealthfully, while Rachel steals her father’s idols. Laban catches Jacob on the run, and confronts Jacob. Jacob knows that he is spared from Laban only because G-d has intervened and stopped Laban from attacking him. It’s during this meeting that Jacob finally realizes that deception is ineffective, and that only through confrontation can Jacob achieve his goals.

In next week’s parasha, Va’yishlach, (Genesis 32:25) scripture tells us (Genesis 32:25) that “Jacob remains alone.” In effect scripture informs us that Jacob is alone with himself–confronting himself. Finally, (Genesis 32:26) “Va’yay’avek eesh eemo ad a’lot ha’shachar,” a man wrestles with him until the morning rises. The way to deal with evil, Jacob learns at last, is not through deception, but by struggling–through confrontation! It is at this point that Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael, (Genesis 32:28) “Ki sarita im Elokim v’im anashim vatuchal,” because you have wrestled with G-d and with man, and you have prevailed.

This is the lesson that we learn from father Jacob. Whatever our predisposition, be it supplanter, deceiver, luster or thief, eventually, each person must confront their own personal shortcomings. The proper way to deal with negative character traits and with evil is not by deceiving evil, not by supplanting evil, but by confronting evil and struggling with it. Even if it means that the confronter comes out limping, as did Jacob, still the only effective method is to confront evil.

That’s why Jacob truly deserves to be regarded as an exalted figure, not only among the patriarchs, but as a paragon and model for us all, to teach humankind how to deal with its own shortcomings. After all, we all need to be transformed, some more, some less. We need to wrestle with ourselves, we need to wrestle with G-d, we need to wrestle with evil. Without wrestling we are incomplete. With wrestling we shall prevail.

May you be blessed.

N.B. This Torah message takes a very harsh view of our forefather Jacob. I by no means intend it to be disrespectful. In fact, I have omitted most of the harshest Midrashic interpretations that are recorded in the texts. The purpose of this message however is to explain, in light of the rather copious negative rabbinic comments pertaining to Jacob, how and why Jacob emerges as the revered forefather of Israel. There are however, as I stated, many other commentaries who explain the struggle and deception in a way that justifies Jacob’s actions, and actually show how he acted in a moral and honest manner.