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Vayeitzei: The First Israelite

Genesis 32:4–36:43

This week's reading throws us directly into the meandering stories of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, the last and most defining of Israel's patriarchs. The great 19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch once wrote that, as an archetype, the figure of Jacob embodies the diverse qualities of his twelve sons, who gave their names to the Israelite tribes. The kingly wisdom of Judah, the dedication of Levi, the scrappy resourcefulness of Joseph: in later generations, each tribe could see Jacob as its special forefather.

But what kind of man is Jacob? Perhaps no biblical hero is so conflicted or so confusing.

Lover—or pious man of God? In the Bible's first real story of romantic love, Jacob works seven long years to earn the hand of his uncle Laban's daughter Rachel—only to discover on the wedding night that his promised bride has been surreptitiously replaced by her older sister Leah. To marry his true love, Jacob agrees to work another seven years; yet we are left wondering why. Was his willingness to sacrifice a decade and a half of his life the result of a belief that only Rachel could carry forth the divine mission to future generations? Or was he doing it out of a fierce passion for this woman at all costs? Even more perplexingly, could these just be different sides of the same coin?

Schemer—or innovative genius? We've already seen the young Jacob following his mother's lead in finagling away both the birthright and his father's blessing from his twin brother Esau. In this week's reading, he strikes a deal with Laban to set the terms of his departure. He has been tending Laban's sheep for all these years, and now the two men agree that he can take with him whichever lambs of the flock are spotted. Miraculously, the sheep begin replicating in earnest—and lo! the lambs all seem to be born with spots. What may be the earliest recorded severance package in history turns out also to be the earliest instance of genetic engineering. Laban suspects he's been swindled, and Jacob organizes a daring pre-dawn escape, Baltimore Colts-style, with his newfound wealth. What exactly the stories teach us about trickery and cleverness—as opposed to earning your way through intelligence and diligence—remains a mystery.

Weak appeaser—or muscle man? In contrast to his brother Esau the huntsman, Jacob, we are told, is a "simple man who dwelled in tents." The impression is of a pallid yeshiva boy ignorant of the ways of the wild and the world. Yet this week he makes his entrance in Haran by single-handedly rolling over the great stone that blocked up the local well, as the local shepherds look on, stunned. Later on, in another switch, he will prepare for battle against Esau by trying to soften him up instead with gifts; still later, he will bitterly rebuke his sons Levi and Shimon for wreaking terrible vengeance on Shechem, who had raped their sister Dinah, and all his townsmen. In the latter case Jacob's objection is grounded less in principle than in realpolitik: he is fearful that his sons' behavior will trigger the anger of all the neighboring peoples, an argument that subsequently proves false. So is macho power the virtue, or is appeasement—or neither? With Jacob, we can't tell.

Jacob—or Israel? Jacob is not the only major biblical figure to enjoy a divinely-inspired name change. In his case, however, it is not just a matter, as it was with Abraham, of adding a single letter. From next week's wrestling match with an angel he will emerge with a wholly new identity and a radically different name. Yaakov—"he will thwart"—becomes Yisrael—"he will wrestle with God." But unlike in the case of Abraham, there is something unresolved about each of these two identities, with the names switching back and forth as he faces challenges far greater than those of Abraham, including the disappearance and presumed death of his son Joseph. Although the change of name seems intended to reflect an inner transformation from passivity to activity, from a man who waits to see what God will provide to one who also challenges God, his life doesn't become more successful or easier as a result.  

So what kind of man is Jacob? In each of these dichotomies, the answer seems to be yes and no, both and neither. The Torah's literary ambiguity is as astonishing as it is true to the complexities of real life. Perhaps most stunning of all is the hidden assumption—accepted as axiomatic by later writers including Hirsch—that a figure so tortured and so nuanced nonetheless contains within him the essence of Israel, and of the Jewish people.

And where does that leave us? Over the course of many centuries, the descendants of Jacob have been imagined, by themselves and by others, as both uniquely clever and uniquely innocent, preternaturally adaptive and stiff-necked, physically weak and drunk with power, lusting for money and lusting for law. As for their peculiar "Jewishness," it has been located alternatively in their culture, their history, their faith, and their blood. Like Jacob's, the Jewish character eludes us, and so no doubt it ever will.

David Hazony is the author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, published in September by Scribner.



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