“The Transformation of Jacob”
(updated and revised from Vayeitzei 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. 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 had deceived their father Isaac by disguising himself as Esau and had taken Esau’s blessing, Esau, in the presence of his father, lets out a bitter cry (Genesis 27:36), הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב, וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם? “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, filled with rage and resentment, threatens to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies.

Rebecca, their mother, is traumatized by Esau’s threat, and advises Jacob to leave home and flee to her brother Laban, who lives in Charan (Mesopotamia), 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 explains Jacob’s deceptive actions by claiming that Jacob very much did not wish to deceive his father, but could not refuse the earnest importuning of his mother, Rebecca. Other commentators place a positive spin on Jacob’s behavior and character, as well. However, many other commentaries come down hard on Jacob, charging him with inappropriate behavior, saying that both 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 exalted status, and is regarded as one of the three revered Patriarchs, the one after whom the Jewish people are named?

Even before birth, Jacob tried to supplant Esau. The Torah tells us (Genesis 25:22), וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ, that the not-yet-born twin boys 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 by a place of Torah learning, Jacob would try to get out of the womb to join the scholars, 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. Any way you look at it, the 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), וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו, that literally before Jacob breathes his first breath, he is holding on to Esau’s foot, trying to prevent Esau from emerging first.

The Torah then informs the readers (Genesis 25:26), וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, יַעֲקֹב, 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, the child’s father, who names the child. But the verse is ambiguous enough to allow our rabbis (see Rashi) 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, however, 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, Jacob’s behavior is a fulfillment of a Divine prophecy. We know this from the fact that when Rebecca experiences unusual pain in pregnancy, scripture (Genesis 25:22), informs us that she tried to discover the cause of her suffering by consulting with “Eh-lohim,” the spiritual powers. לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי, “Why am I thus?”, she asks. Rebecca is then informed through prophecy that there are two great nations in her womb, and two great peoples in her bowels, (Genesis 25:23) וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, and that these two people will struggle. Obviously, the struggle is Divinely ordained! Jacob legitimately deserves to lord over Esau because the prophecy clearly predicts (Genesis 25:23) וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר, that the younger one will supplant the older, and that the older is destined to be subservient to the younger.

The Torah (Genesis 25:29-34), then describes the devious means that Jacob uses 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 (Genesis 27), 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), בָּא אָחִיךָ בְּמִרְמָה, “Your brother has come with deception.” If Jacob is indeed the deceiver, what does it mean when the Torah previously describes Jacob as an (Genesis 25:27) אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, “an innocent person, dwelling in tents.” Perhaps Jacob is playing the role of an innocent, but it appears to really be an act that is part of a great deception.

At this point in the story, however, the multiple deceptions have 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, if you wish to be a deceiver, if you really want to learn how to be deceptive, I suggest then, that you go to the master deceiver, to my brother, Laban. With Laban at least you’ll learn the art of deception from the master—not only how to get away with it, but even how to come out on top.” Or, perhaps, Rebecca is telling Jacob: “You think that deceit is the way to solve your problems? Perhaps you will have a change of heart after Laban shows you what it feels like to be on the receiving end of deceit, and you will be deceived of everything–your wife, Rachel, your salary and your property!”

As this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, opens, Jacob departs Canaan, and on the way, he dreams a dream. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. Jacob, who is 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, “Enough of this deception! I’m in the process of transforming myself into a proper, honorable gentleman. I must change from being a totally materialistic 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 not by the local shepherds of Charan. In fact, when Jacob asks the shepherds, (Genesis 29:6), “How is Laban?” they say, in effect, “Bug off. Here comes his daughter, ask her.”

Laban is really the ultimate swindler, a notorious con man. After Jacob is introduced to Laban and his family, things quickly 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-to-be, Rachel.

After working for 14 years to pay off his commitment for Rachel, Jacob remains with Laban in Charan and has a houseful of children. When, at last, the barren Rachel gives birth to Joseph, Jacob approaches Laban to take leave of his father-in-law, and sets out on his own. Laban realizes and acknowledges that all his good fortune is due to Jacob’s diligent work. He 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 a three day 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, as Laban’s sons are consumed with jealousy, claiming 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, 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 to heaven–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 does not work, and that only by confronting and wresting with evil can he achieve his goals.

In next week’s parasha, Vayishlach, scripture reports (Genesis 32:25), that “Jacob remains alone.” In effect scripture informs us that Jacob is alone with himself existentially–confronting himself. Finally, (Genesis 32:26,) וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר, 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 32:29), כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱ־לֹקִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל , “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, 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 trying to deceive or outsmart 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, (Genesis 32:32), still the only effective method is to confront evil.

That is why Jacob truly deserves to be regarded as an exalted figure, not only among the patriarchs, but as a paragon and model for all people, 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 indeed prevail.

May you be blessed.

N.B. This Torah message appears to take a very harsh view of our forefather Jacob. It is, by no means, intended 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 most moral and honest manner.