Torah portion: Jacob, the imperfect and perfected patriarch

Parashat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
November 18, 2015

At the beginning of our parsha, we find Jacob utterly alone, en route to exile, without friends or family. He is a lonely immigrant en route to a foreign land. What produced this sordid state of affairs? 

The answer is, of course, the cunning trickery that Jacob employed in order to deceive Isaac, his frail, elderly and blind father, in order to obtain that which his father did not wish to confer unto him — namely, the blessing meant for Isaac’s other son, Esau. 

If we read this story on its pshat (literal) level, it seems that Jacob acted in an unethical way. Jacob dressed up like Esau and explicitly lied to his father. And afterward, Esau has an emotional breakdown upon hearing that his younger brother resorted to identity theft and stole his blessing.

Our sages teach that the Torah has 70 facets. One such facet offers an intriguing and provocative counter-narrative of the continuation of the story in this week’s parsha. According to this reading, which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tacitly endorses in his latest book, “Not in God’s Name,” what we find in our parsha is nothing less than a divinely orchestrated retribution against Jacob’s misdeeds. 

In this week’s reading, we find Jacob arriving in Aram, and falling for his cousin Rachel, who was exceedingly beautiful. Jacob starts working diligently for his uncle Lavan, in order to merit and earn the right to marry the love of his life. He and Lavan strike a verbal agreement: Jacob will work seven years for Lavan and then become eligible to marry Rachel. Notice that this deal between Lavan and Jacob is not written down; it is based on honesty and integrity, upon good faith and truthfulness. 

The subtle and bitter irony of the text in the scenes that follow cannot escape the attuned and attentive reader: Jacob marries a veiled woman, and in the morning, to his great horror, finds out that he married the wrong cousin; he married Leah, not her sister Rachel. In other words, Lavan resorted to cunning trickery and violated the agreement. Lavan shamelessly cheated his own flesh and blood, his own nephew. Notice also the defensive rhetoric that Lavan employs when confronted by Jacob, explaining: “It is virtually unheard of in our quarters to do such a thing — to marry off the younger sibling before the older sibling is married!” (Genesis 29:26).

Note the forceful retribution inherent in this verse: Jacob, the cunning young sibling who outsmarted his older sibling and tricked his elderly father, is now getting a taste of his own medicine. Jacob caused an inversion in his own nuclear family, an inversion in which he, the younger sibling, is blessed prior to the older sibling. And now, his uncle Lavan is basically telling his nephew: We don’t do business like this in my nuclear family. You are not going to get away with unsettling the familial hierarchy and structure. Here, we don’t favor the young over the old. 

What we have here at work is an ethical and spiritual principle that our sages allude to numerous times in the Torah. It is called “midah keneged midah”(measure for measure). In other words, Jacob experiences on his own flesh, and in his own heart, the devastation that which his own father and older sibling felt earlier. 

Throughout the rest of the parsha, Jacob continuously has to contend with the cunning trickery of Lavan, until he finally decides to move back to Canaan with his own family. In next week’s parsha, we will find Jacob seeking to amend his wrongful ways and reconcile with his brother Esau. We will see Jacob crying on his brother’s shoulder, beseeching him to take back that which was originally intended for him, namely the blessing of his father. 

After this dramatic encounter between the hitherto estranged siblings, Jacob completes his tikkun, as his arrives in Israel as a fixed and perfected human being: “And Jacob arrived [in Israel] Shalem” (33:18). “Shalem” is Hebrew for “wholesome,” “integrated,” “complete.” 

In last week’s parsha (Toldot), Jacob tricked his father and broke his brother’s heart. It was about Jacob’s misdeeds and wrongful acts. In this week’s parsha (Vayetzei), Jacob is cheated by Lavan and gets a taste of his own medicine. Next week, with Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob corrects his ways. The pattern is thus threefold: crime (Toldot), retribution (Vayetzei) and teshuvah (Vayishlach). This sheds light on Jacob’s entire spiritual odyssey, and also explains why we, as a nation, are named after him (the Children of Israel), rather than after his father or grandfather (the Children of Abraham or Isaac). 

We are known as the “People of Israel,” because Jacob/Israel represents a realistic role model for self-betterment and growth. Abraham and Isaac were flawless, spiritual and ethical giants. Nowhere in the Torah do they explicitly act in a wrongful or unethical manner. Jacob, like most of us, is all too human. He has his shortcomings and failures. He mistreats others during his reckless youth, but also possesses the grandeur of spirit required to make teshuvah, to transform his ways. 

Jacob is our paradigm and namesake because he personifies our soulful capacity to reassess our deeds and modes of being, to acknowledge our mistakes and shortcomings, to remedy our faults and failings. We are named after Jacob, the imperfect patriarch, because he exemplifies the imperative to forgive ourselves and others, grow for the good, start afresh and embrace one another wholeheartedly. Such was the way of Jacob, and such needs to be our way, the way of his spiritual descendants — the people Israel.  

Rabbi Tal Sessler is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books dealing with philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.

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