“From Ish Tam to Business Mogul: The Transformation of Jacob”
(updated and revised from Vayeitzei 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, opens, we encounter Jacob, as he arrives in Charan, after fleeing from his brother Esau who has threatened to kill him.

Unlike Eliezer, his grandfather Abraham’s Damascan servant, who arrived in Charan with a caravan of camels and many valuable gifts, Jacob arrives totally empty-handed. According to tradition, Jacob’s impoverishment is due to Esau’s son Eliphaz, who was sent by his father to kill Jacob. When Eliphaz catches him, Jacob convinces Eliphaz to take all his possessions, because according to Talmudic tradition, a poor man is like one who is dead.

In Charan, Jacob meets Laban, his future father-in-law, who is a first-class con man. Jacob is victimized by Laban at the marriage ceremony when Laban switches Jacob’s beloved Rachel with her sister, Leah, and later in business when scripture reports that Laban switches Jacob’s wages ten times. And yet, by the end of the parasha, Jacob leaves Charan with tremendous wealth.

How does Jacob, who is described in Genesis 25:27 as an אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, an ingenuous man who sits and studies in the tent, become so incredibly successful, a master businessman? In fact, we may ask, what accounts for the success of the tens of thousands of Jews today, many of whom had have only yeshiva training, and minimal secular education, who have been transformed into major business players? What is the source of this unusual business acumen, which has resulted in unprecedented financial success of the Jewish community?

Consider the following:

Have you ever wondered why Jews are so extraordinarily overrepresented among Nobel Prize recipients? Did you ever consider why such a phenomenally high percentage of Jews continue on to higher education? Why so many of the elite universities have such high proportions of Jewish students and professors? Do you know that studies confirm that economically, Jews are the most successful religious minority in America, with the Asians, rapidly advancing, but still a distant second?

Some say it’s luck, or an aberration of the genetic pool–certainly difficult claims to substantiate. Others, like Professor Ernest Van Der Haag in his study The Jewish Mystique, proffer fascinating theories which attempt to account for this extraordinary phenomenon. They argue that the Jewish lifestyle, primarily the customs and rituals of Judaism, are most responsible for Jewish success.

They reason as follows: Since one of the highest values in Jewish life has always been education, the most sought-after marriage mates, especially among wealthy Jews, have always been children of scholars and rabbis! Consequently, for millennia, it has been common Jewish practice that the daughter or son of the scholar and rabbi would most often marry the child of the wealthy businessperson. This crossbreeding resulted in the matching of the best academic minds and the smartest business heads. Being rich, the offspring were usually better clothed and fed, thus less prone to sickness and illness and, in the battle for survival of the fittest, those who survived were usually the most intelligent. (Ironically, in the Catholic Church, the best and the brightest often entered the clergy, and due to church requirements of celibacy, rarely reproduced, seriously lowering that genetic pool.)

An additional element that impacted on Jewish intelligence is that Jews who survive today all had grandparents, perhaps great-grandparents, who, no matter how poor, were zealously committed to Jewish study and learning. Despite the great challenges of poverty and hunger, Jewish illiteracy (among both male and female) throughout the millennia of Jewish history was virtually nonexistent. It is well known, that in even the tiniest Jewish towns and shtetls, study groups for different professions often met to study (usually Talmud) on a daily basis. Water drawers, wagon drivers, traders, tailors, lumberjacks, each had their own study group.

It is important to note that while these study groups often differed in scope and intensity, the quality of study was remarkably high. Especially crucial was the development and enhancement of the participants’ Talmudic reasoning skills that were emphasized in these classes. In fact, the entire Talmudic method, based on thrust and parry, challenge and response, is a most rigorous mental exercise. “Question, question, question,” is the ideal study methodology. Even on an elementary level, Talmud study is a mentally challenging, skill-enhancing study, usually performed in pairs, for the primary reason that a person learning alone is likely to gloss over or avoid challenging and troublesome issues. In pairs, the study partners are more likely to wrestle with the problem, until a resolution is reached.

Women, as well, read special interpretations of the Bible, which, if not as rigorous academically, certainly served to inspire mothers to zealously believe that the foremost Jewish ideal was the study and mastery of Torah, a value which Jewish mothers faithfully communicated to their children in each generation.

And so, it is not at all surprising that historically Jews have been academically superior to their non-Jewish neighbors, who, with rare exception, did not possess the ethnic tradition of pursuit of intellectual excellence.

And though much has changed during the last century, even today, even among most assimilated American Jews, certain residual ethnic characteristics remain which often distinguish the Jew from the non-Jew. Contemporary Jews are generally more charitable, commit fewer violent crimes and are more devoted to the pursuit of advanced education than the average non-Jew. However, as Jews get further away from their traditional moorings, these ethnic characteristics become less and less prominent. Hence the recent decline in Jewish philanthropy among young Jews (despite greater wealth), the decline in college enrollment among young Jews, and a moderate, but perceptible, rise in behaviors which were once virtually unknown among Jews – violent crime, alcohol and drug abuse, habitual gambling, spousal abuse,–and a dramatic rise in divorce rates.

Does an iron-clad guarantee exist which ensures continued Jewish economic success? Yes and no. Most assuredly, no one can guarantee that a commitment to a traditional Jewish lifestyle and its values will make one a millionaire! But certainly, one of the great tragedies of today is that, all too often, economically successful Jews cut themselves off from the very source of their success! By abandoning Jewish connections, particularly the rituals of Jewish life, today’s Jews are effectively distancing themselves from those very values, rituals and practices, which perhaps, more than anything else, have guaranteed intellectual and economic success from generation to generation.

To put it bluntly, Torah and traditional Jewish living is the true secret elixir most responsible for the unusual historic success of the Jews. Why astute businesspeople, who are virtually “obsessed” with preserving their exalted financial status, who labor tirelessly to fashion dazzling systems of legal trusts to preserve their wealth for future generations, who constantly search for novel get-rich-quick schemes, and who, with boundless creativity, seek out new shelters to preserve their wealth, would abandon the wellspring of Jewish success, would make one very fascinating Harvard Business School case study.

So, what does all this have to do with Father Jacob? According to tradition, before Jacob arrived in Charan he took a 14 year detour to study at the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.” Perhaps he was sharpening his cerebral skills to prepare for the encounter with the wily Laban. And, perhaps those studies prepared Jacob for the financial success that he ultimately achieved.

Of course, Jewish tradition (Deuteronomy 8:17), strongly maintains that no one has the right to say that “my business acumen alone brought me this great success.” But, rather, that all must acknowledge that everything is ultimately in G-d’s hands.

May you be blessed.