Why Is Jacob, Despite Everything, My Father?
In last week’s portion we explored the web of lies that surrounded Jacob from the moment he was born until he reached his final not-very-restful abode. This week’s portion doesn’t give Jacob much rest, either. It’s not only lies that surround him and his family, but heaps of trouble that pursue them. There are people and families that never in a lifetime experience a fraction of what he went through. But he, Jacob, seems to have been a magnet for all the real and symbolic troubles that can possibly appear in a family, to the point where the reader says to himself, if there was ever a family I would not want my family to resemble, it has to be Jacob’s family. There probably wasn’t a single piece of it that functioned properly. And so the inevitable question arises: why was he chosen to be the father of our nation? Why not Joseph, the ruler of Egypt, or Judah, the mighty warrior? For that matter, why him and not Esau? At least Esau isn’t known to have accumulated such a burden of shame and infamy.
Generally speaking, I should make it clear that just as I don’t consider the Torah a Jewish book of science (as in How to Create a World in Six Days), nor do I consider it a history book whose every fact represents actual events. By the same token, I don’t think that the patriarchs were necessarily three consecutive generations of father, son and grandson. The Chumash tells the stories of three great characters who arose during the course of several generations, each of whom embodied certain character traits and personal, national, moral or religious profiles so worthy of note that they became beacons, symbolic fathers of the entire nation. I think it’s even possible that there were no such people at all, and that these characters are archetypes. If that’s that case, then why Jacob? What does he represent?
Abraham is the model of the true believer whose faith burns pure right up until his final breath (and even until the final breaths of his loved ones, who pay the price for his passion). Isaac represents an extreme form of the helplessness that strikes us at various times and places. So often in his personal history he was the passive victim of circumstances not of his doing. Like him, we often long for complete, absolute protection from the vicissitudes of life, only to find ourselves surprised each time that life is so much more creative and imaginative than all our careful plans. And Jacob? Jacob symbolizes our national proclivity for disaster. There are some people who simply attract calamity. They’re accident prone, constantly tripping over something, never quite managing to come home in one piece from wherever they were going. Jacob was like that and so are we, his children and children’s children. The stories are in the past, but their message is eternal because the evil in the universe and in humankind has no expiration date.
We often find ourselves enchanted by stories of runaway children, youngsters forced to leave home to escape family violence. The first of the breed was Jacob, son of Rebecca and Isaac, of the line of Abraham. His older brother, the big, tough hunter, didn’t like him or his oh-so-civilized ways, and hated his childish pranks. Things finally reached the point that Jacob was forced to flee for his life from his hot-tempered brother’s very specific and concrete threat: “Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then I will slay my brother Jacob” (Gen. 27:41). This was a family where every private thought became public knowledge, so someone came along and told Esau’s secret to his mother: “And the words of Esau her elder son were told to Rebecca” (Gen 27:42).
And so Jacob sets out on his own, a runaway youth joining the ranks of the fugitives. He goes looking for a family to take him in, in place of his own family, which broke up under circumstances that were partly his own fault. As if it weren’t enough that he has to grow up without a father or mother, the same trauma continues to resonate throughout the rest of his adult life. For twenty-one long years he is cut off from his beloved mother. He loses his childhood sweetheart Rachel while she is still young, before they have had a chance to consummate their love or enjoy the freedom they have purchased from her father, thanks to his beliefs and limitations. No loving, supportive mother, no beloved wife, no tenderness.
The family is unquestionably the arena where Jacob’s life is pounded out. His wives are switched one after the other: Leah, then Rachel, then the concubines that are deposited between his loins for fruitfulness and multiplication. He lives in constant dread of his father-in-law Laban, fearing that he will steal his daughters and concubines. There’s no real trust between him and his wives. Even his beloved Rachel – for whom he labored seven years and then another seven, through summer and winter, in blazing heat and freezing cold – steals her father’s idols and hides the truth from Jacob, tries to deny it and finally brings disaster on them both when she turns out to be the address for the death-curse that escaped Jacob’s lips in his promise to Laban: “‘With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, he shall not live…’ For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them” (Gen 31:32).
That was Jacob’s relationship with his wives. Things were no better with his children – from Reuben, his firstborn, to Benjamin, his last-born, child of Rachel, his only true love. Besides stealing the blessings and rights of the firstborn from his brother Esau, he essentially usurped his brother’s natural role. Perhaps there were customs of this sort in those days, as some ancient archives attest, but the biblical narrator derives no pleasure from these customs. The result is that both of his natural firstborn sons are displaced before his very eyes in the most eternally humiliating fashion. Reuben, his firstborn, exposes the family to the ugliness of incest when he takes his father’s concubine Bilhah between the sheets. Reuben violates his father’s honor in an act more violent and cruel than Jacob’s own act of cheating Isaac and Esau. The result is that Leah’s eldest loses his birthright. Likewise Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, is taken from the farm into long years of exile, and Jacob is forced to make do with Judah as his heir and bearer of his line into eternity (for out of the tribe of Judah, Yehudah, come the Yehudim, the Jews), even though we have no idea how Jacob felt about him.
Sex, forbidden, impure and brutally violent, never ceases to dictate events in Jacob’s household. Consider the rape of Dinah in Shechem (Gen. 34:1–31), and its bloody consequences. Consider Judah’s involvement with Tamar, his daughter-in-law, lover and whore, who was “with child by harlotry” (Gen. 38:24). Not to mention the business deal Rachel concluded with Leah, trading sex with their husband in exchange for a bunch of mandrake flowers.
And on top of everything else, let’s not forget the trade in children that was conducted in Jacob’s household. The brothers sold seventeen-year-old Joseph to the Midianites, to the Ishmaelites, to Egypt. Afterward they abandoned Simeon in an Egyptian prison. Then they all banded together against their aged father to trade young Benjamin in exchange for the opportunity to feed their family during the famine that was ravaging the land. Through all these misfortunes that plagued Jacob from his earliest childhood right through his final days in Egyptian exile, his body too was damaged beyond repair, leaving him an invalid. Jacob was a healthy man, a strapping shepherd, familiar with the seasons of the year, the fields and the desert, and knowledgeable in the ways of nature. But after a fierce nighttime struggle with a man whose name remains unknown, he is left with a crippled leg. His hip dislocated, he limps on his perpetually aching leg from that day on (Gen. 32:25–30). And he limps in more ways than one: he doesn’t love his first wife, he has grief from his beloved second wife and misery from his concubine and he is forced to witness a bloodbath over the wounded honor of his clan and the rape of his daughter. No wonder he fears the natives, worrying that they might kill him and his household and not be satisfied with merely vilifying his good name, which isn’t so good to begin with.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is our father Jacob. A man with a history like this should have given rise to the Tatars, Mongols, Cossacks or some other warlike tribe. And yet, remarkably, this is the man whose troubled life gave birth to the most positive philosophy of life, one of whose finest rules, according to Rabbi Akiba, is: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). The very practical-minded Hillel the Elder rendered the same idea this way: “What is hateful to you, do not unto others” (Mishnah Avot 4:5). It’s amazing, isn’t it? Jacob is the ultimate proof of our claim that the entire Torah is, among other things, the improvement manual for our forefathers’ character flaws. It’s an improvement process that obligates each and every one of us, all day, every day. As the saying goes: happy is the man who is always improving.
Vayetze — Jacob Left