VaYishlach – Jacob: Patriarch of Paradox

I have always had a warm spot in my heart for the Patriarch Jacob. I believe he has been maligned and misunderstood by most commentators. He has been called a thief and supplanter and treated as an unspiritual person. This neglects important Biblical facts. In earlier parshas, while Jacob was still in the womb, God told his mother Rivka, that it was Jacob and not Esau who was chosen and would inherit the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant. Even though, before birth God made this clear, Jacob had to buy his birthright from his brother Esau who clearly didn’t care about it. Later, Jacob, at the urging of his mother, needed to deceive his blind father so he and not Esau would receive the blessing. Jacob is therefore portrayed as deceitful and his brother is made out to be a victim. I don’t see it that way. After all, God did say it was Jacob who was supposed to receive this promised blessing in the first place, even though the culture said the older brother should receive it. From my perspective, the fault lies with Isaac, not Jacob. The Torah says Esau was a mighty hunter and warrior, while Jacob dwelt in tents. The text also makes it clear that spiritual things mattered more to Jacob than to Esau.

Esau clearly didn’t care about the birthright, and Jacob so desired the things of God that he would do whatever he had to do to have the blessings of God. This is why God said, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” The curious thing in my mind, is why Isaac favored Esau, his less than spiritual son. If Isaac was more spiritually attuned to his sons and paid attention to what God said to Rivka, he would not have put Jacob in a situation where he had to buy his birthright and deceive his father to receive the blessing that God said was his in the first place. Perhaps it was Isaac’s own sense of vulnerability after he was bound on the altar and stared death in the face. Maybe it was his blindness. Powerful Esau may have been a protector and comfort for him.

Later in his life, Jacob had to flee from his brother who was going to kill him, and found himself exploited by his uncle, who made him work 14 years for his wives and another 7 for his flocks, until finally, he leaves and returns to his home and the land promised to him.

VaYishlach opens with Jacob on the way home. As he and his family enter the land, he wrestles with an angel and prepares to meet his brother, who planned to kill him the last time he saw him. There is a great contrast between Jacob and Esau. Esau comes in strength with 400 men with him. He is the lord of Mt. Seir. He is a strong, powerful leader. Jacob comes in physical vulnerability; physically weakened from his battle with the angel, with four wives, 12 children, and droves of sheep with no means of defense. His strength was not power and muscle, but faith and the promise of God.

When he met Esau, Jacob was scared. You have to wonder why he was afraid. It could have been his brother’s mini army that scared him. We aren’t told if they were there to kill, or just Esau’s entourage. But God told Jacob it was time to return to the Land. He was afraid, but he went, showing his obedience. We are told he was met by the angels of God. This should have been a great encouragement to him, but he was still afraid.

He starts sending huge herds of sheep and goats as gifts to Esau and calls himself Esau’s servant. He was a man of faith and inner strength, but a man who still feared his older brother. This was the same man who beat up an angel. God even changed his name to Israel because he strove with God and man and prevailed, but not because of physical strength. The years were rough on him, but he prevailed at great cost. Years later he would tell Pharaoh, “few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” His life was not an easy one.

He divides his family by mothers with their children, then goes before them and meets Esau, and bows before him, “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”You have to wonder, what changed? Esau was still Esau, and Jacob was still Jacob. Was it just that they got older? Was it that Esau knew he was physically stronger and more imposing than Jacob, and that was what really mattered to Esau? Maybe he realized the blessings Jacob had were really his to have all along, and Esau didn’t need them anyway.

During the High Holy Days, I wrote about my grandfather and his brother who had a fight and didn’t talk for 20 years. They met while visiting the graves of their parents and wept and embraced one another. They really didn’t forget why they quarreled but they realized over time that their relationship as brothers mattered more than what they fought about. Maybe it was the same with Jacob and Esau. Maybe Esau realized he would be great without the promise and blessings of his father that he didn’t get, and Jacob, who was not as imposing, needed them more; that for him, it was a better fit anyway. Jacob didn’t settle with Esau, because God had a different destiny for him and his descendants; yet something changed. There was forgiveness, acceptance, and blessing.

During the course of our lives, we argue and fight with one another, and sometimes don’t talk with each other for years. Maturity is not standing with our firmly held convictions intact, as much as it is to realize that our relationships with one another are gifts from God and we gain more by valuing each other than maintaining our positions. Its been a blessing to me over the years to meet people I quarreled and differed with, and just enjoy a renewed friendship in spite of past differences. People matter more than fights over issues.

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3 thoughts on “VaYishlach – Jacob: Patriarch of Paradox

  1. > People matter more than fights over issues.

    Amen.

    As for Isaac favoring Esau: for some reason I assumed that it was because Esau was the strapping, physical son. (I guess the view that takes Isaac’s akedah experience into account implies something similar.)

    Regardless, I heard an interesting take on the story which reframed Isaac’s doubts about Jacob as an old father’s hope that somehow his favorite son had gone out on this test and come back spiritually changed, now reflecting the best characteristics of his brother as well.

  2. Methinks that all the characters involved in this soap opera, are portrayed as weak and flawed. The wonder for me is to see the how Jacob’s character unfolds during the narrative as he becomnes the covenant partner worthy to father the 12 tribes. Somehow, it encourages me because HaShem doesnl;t require perfection; he just requires obedience. The prayer restling with Malach Adonai is powerful and the truning point in the whole drama. Blessings Michael

  3. I apologize for the spelling. I was drinking a fine cuppa coffee and as my dear wife often reminds me, I can’t multi-task. Of course, I deny everything.

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