Jacob and What Isn’t Accomplished by Force
As we’ve noted, more than half the weekly portions in the Book of Genesis deal with Jacob, his personal history and his difficult family. It’s no surprise, then, that his character and profile are depicted in much finer detail in the Torah than any of his parents or forebears. Abraham first entered the stage at age seventy-something. Isaac was passive and dependent until his fifties; it was not until then that he began to register as an independent actor, after which we came to know him as an innovative and prosperous farmer, though he remained a weak, ineffectual father.
By contrast, we follow Jacob from the moment he is born until he breathes his final breath. We have a front-row seat as he grows and evolves. Let’s try to isolate one thread in his story and follow it from beginning to end. By tracing this one thread, we can try to understand some of the dimensions and processes that he carried with him from his earliest days as Jacob, the younger brother, up to his death as Israel, the father of the children of Israel.
Jacob’s life story is a long, torturous process of learning the uses and limits of power. Often enough he simply didn’t understand the meaning of power. He didn’t know that he himself was imbued with great power. He didn’t know how to wield it, and many of his mistakes stemmed from his failure to understand it. He was utterly blind to the strength that comes from restraining oneself and refraining from the use of power.
There is a tradition of power and combativeness interwoven through all the stories of the patriarchs. Abraham didn’t hesitate to use his strength and the strength of his servants to chase Lot’s captors all the way to the outskirts of Damascus (Gen. 14:14), nor did he hesitate to restrain himself and decline a share of the riches of the king of Sodom (Gen. 14:22–23), just as he had conceded to Lot the entire eastern half of the land (Gen. 13:8–12). In the same manner he forcefully scolded God when he famously argued for the people of Sodom: “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked” (Gen. 18:25). Isaac, too, after having been bound on the altar as a child, learned the uses of power in adulthood. His newfound skills served him well in his battles over the wells of the Philistines (Gen. 26:18–22) and in his enormous economic success, which brought him his “hundredfold” yield (Gen. 26:12) on his first investment.
But Jacob, unlike his father and grandfather, never learned exactly what power was nor how to use it, whether for good or ill. He began his life as a youth with no boundaries, using more force than necessary, and by the end of his life, having learned too many lessons, physically and emotionally scarred, he shunned power to the point of emasculating himself and sabotaging his own essential defenses.
Let’s begin our journey by reviewing the banal texture of Jacob’s relationship with his brother Esau. At this early stage it’s clear that Jacob is using all the combative tricks and stratagems of the campsite. While big, hairy Esau is naively sauntering through the fields, luring animals into his nets, our forefather is casting a net of his own. Jacob’s net is woven of intelligence: Where are Esau’s clothes? What are Papa Isaac’s favorite snacks? Jacob learned to imitate Esau’s speech and mannerisms, and to draw on Mama Rachel’s talents and contacts and so much more, all adding up to an ancient version of “knowledge is power”. In the next scene, we see Jacob approaching the well at Haran. How they praised his great strength! How, oh how did our hero manage to roll the stone off the mouth of the well (Gen. 29:10)? Every day the shepherds had to wait until they had all assembled, and then together they would roll away the big stone that covered the water of the well, but on this day our hero was so filled with strength at the sight of Rachel, the loveliest of maidens, that with one mighty shove he opened the well and quenched his love and her flock. Great, mighty Jacob.
Still, it might be possible to read the story a bit differently. Perhaps there was an agreement among the local shepherds, any one of whom might have been strong enough to push the stone on his own, that they not touch the stone until they had all gathered and could distribute the water equally. Perhaps the scarcity of water in the region forced them to reach fair-use agreements under which nobody opened the tap until everyone is present, and they avoided the use of force. Toward the beginning of his marvelous book “The Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism’s Contribution to World Peace”, Mordecai M. Kaplan cites Norman Cousins’s much-quoted lament that societies continue to pursue ever-greater means of projecting force, despite the fact that “security today depends on the control of force rather than the use of force.”
In the story of the well, Jacob pursued power, perhaps not understanding the agreements that had been reached to prevent its use. It’s not surprising that from the moment he set foot in Haran, a dark cloud of hostility gathered over him and remained his constant companion.
Long years of struggle eventually sapped Jacob’s strength and brought him at last to the opposite pole. No more tests of strength and power; henceforth, an unending flight from power, authority and displays of force. That might explain his hasty, almost cowardly disengagement from Laban. The biblical narrator is quite correct when describing, as an objective observer, Jacob’s departure: “And Jacob outwitted Laban the Aramean, in that he told him not that he fled. So he fled with all that he had” (Gen. 31:20–21). This weakness continues in his meeting with Esau. What is he afraid of? True, his brother has four hundred men, but Jacob has a few bullyboys of his own. He himself had fought all night with that mysterious stranger (Gen. 32:25–30), which ought to show you that it’s not so easy to beat an old shepherd like Jacob. He’s strong, he’s determined, he can take a kick straight to the groin. And his sons are no different, as two of them, Simeon and Levi, will prove in Shechem a biblical moment later. Not to mention Judah, the bold, brave and daring, and even young Joseph, blessed with considerable powers of survival – twelve strapping sons, along with men- and maidservants. Perhaps he didn’t have the forces to ensure victory on the battlefield, but he certainly could have put up a good fight. But Jacob, once burned by the overuse of force, had now adopted acquiescence as a way of life. He had gone from one extreme to the other. And between the two extremes, our third patriarch lived a life without much balance.
For many years I didn’t give much importance to the Aggadic story of Jacob’s nighttime struggle at the ford of the Jabbok, the night before he was to meet up with his brother Esau. Just another story, I thought, providing a mythological justification for a strange prohibition in the Jewish laws of kashrut: “Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein” (Gen. 32:33). Today I believe that Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious stranger might be the most important turning point in Jacob’s life. It was his last physical combat, after which he never again put up a show of force. I’m quite certain that the nighttime struggle left Jacob deeply disheartened. He was accustomed to winning against all comers, whether in a fair fight or by stealth. Suddenly, on the eve of the greatest battle of his life – his rapprochement with Esau – he discovers that he can’t win every battle.
But this is not the main lesson. The heart of the matter is that Jacob neither won nor lost, but fought to a draw. His opponent touched his leg and dislocated it. Jacob fought him off until daybreak without a decision. A man who is used to smashing his opponents suddenly finds himself alone in the middle of the night facing someone who is exactly his match. He returns from the fight and decides not to hide what happened. He was the only one there, and if not for his testimony we would never have known about it.
Would it have been so hard for Jacob, the veteran liar, to make up a good cover story for his limp, the delay and his late return from the ford of the Jabbok? Certainly not. He chose to tell the truth because there, that night, he learned that there are things that can’t be solved by force, by more force or even by mustering every ounce of strength. There are times when the other side is able to muster the same resources as you. From that time forward Jacob became the father of Jewish nonviolence at its finest.
That night, Jacob was transformed from a disciple of power into the inventor of the theory of strength through submission. He didn’t fight Esau for several reasons. It’s quite likely that he felt that his brother Esau was basically in the right, and a war without justification is a recipe for disaster and defeat. But the main reason, it seems to me, was that he wanted to break the pathological pattern in his relationship with his surroundings. The force he was accustomed to wielding had turned from an asset into a burden, from a value to a vapidity. What began as a simple desire to change things by fleeing his father-in-law’s house became a full-fledged policy after the nighttime encounter that preceded the morning summit.
Nor did his sons Simeon and Levi succeed in their efforts to drag their father back to the place he knew so well, after their slaughter of the men of Shechem. Toward the end of this week’s portion he gives them a stiff lecture on the New Jacobism: “Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, ‘Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land, even unto the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and, I being few in number, they will gather themselves together and smite me, and I shall be destroyed I and my house” (Gen. 34:30). This is the new identity that could not have been articulated in the old words and concepts, which is why his name was changed: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Gen. 32:28). In the last few generations we have learned what Jacob means and what is wrong with it, but we haven’t yet come to understand fully the meaning of Israel, and the concept of power and restraint that is Israelism. But that deserves a portion of its own, and it’s not told in the Torah.