The Character of Jacob
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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
What kind of man was Yaakov? This question resonates throughout his story in the Torah. Though initially described as an ish tam, a simple, straightforward man, Yaakov’s actions seem to undermine this narrative. He not only strategically barters for Eisav’s birthright, he also gains Yitzchak’s blessing by exploiting his blindness. These episodes, troubling in nature, can be solved through the Midrashim which portray Yaakov as all-good and Eisav as all-bad. This interpretation simplifies our perspective.
Alternatively, one might argue that Yaakov’s actions are justified due to the prophecy his mother had received that marked him as the bachor, the ‘chosen’ son.
Yet the text remains unsettling. Indeed, both Yitzchak and Eisav accuse Yaakov of deceit, a charge unique among our biblical heroes. It seems almost like just retribution for his trickery then, when Lavan in turn tricks Yaakov, substituting Leah for Rachel on Yaakov’s wedding night.
But Yaakov’s subsequent actions in Lavan’s household further complicate his character. He strikes a deal for streaked and spotted animals, perhaps using his experience and understanding of farming to increase his wealth significantly. Despite their own success, Lavan and his sons feel cheated. Yaakov is then advised by God to flee, mirroring his earlier escape from Eisav. Which brings us back to our question: What kind of man was Yaakov, and what story is the Torah telling through his life?
Perhaps we should view Yaakov as a figure who responds to oppression and attempts to dehumanise him by using his wits. Perhaps he is like the oppressed characters in folklore like “Brer Rabbit”, who use their intelligence to subvert unjust hierarchies and seize opportunities to right the wrongs around them.
Throughout his life – even since birth – Yaakov seems to live in Eisav’s shadow. Eisav is the athletic hunter, the biblical era’s sporting star, who captures the love and attention of his father while Yaakov wallows in the tents.
Later in life, Lavan attempts to exploit and blackmail Yaakov in his time of need – when he is at his most vulnerable. In each of these cases, when Yaakov comes out ahead, he’s leveraging his quick-wittedness to turn the tables on these typical winners, casting their strengths into weaknesses, if only for a short time.
But then he wrestles with the angel and receives a new name: Yisrael. The names symbolises his struggle and victory over Divine and human challenges. This is when Yaakov’s character fully emerges. As Yisrael, he faces challenges head-on, moving beyond small subterfuges. His transformation from Yaakov to Yisrael mirrors an important thread throughout Jewish history: the determination to embody not only quick-wittedness and learnedness, but also moral courage and heroism.
Yaakov must become Yisrael. For it is not the quick-witted victor but the hero of moral courage who stands tall in the eyes of humanity and God.
Around the Shabbat Table
- What other times in Sefer Bereishit and the greater Tanach have name changes and the importance of recognising a name come up?
- Why do you think the Torah places so much emphasis on what someone is called?
- Think about a time when you faced a complex moral decision. How did you navigate it, and in what ways can you relate your experience to Yaakov’s story?
Parsha in Passing
Yaakov is now travelling, running away from his brother Eisav. Eventually, he stops to rest – and with his head on a pillow of rocks, he finally closes his eyes and dreams. In Yaakov’s dream he sees a ladder upon which angels are ascending and descending. Through this dream, God speaks to Yaakov, telling him that this land will be given to his descendants.
Yaakov now knows that he is indeed the true bachor, the rightful owner of the firstborn birthright. When he awakes, Yaakov sets up a stone altar to mark God’s promise. And then, he continues on his way.
In Charan, Yaakov meets his uncle Lavan. He agrees to work for him for seven years, so he can then marry Rachel, whom he loves. However, Lavan tricks Yaakov by replacing Leah with Rachel at the wedding. Yaakov eventually marries both sisters, and Leah gives birth to six sons and a daughter, while Rachel remains barren. Rachel and Leah give their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, to Yaakov as wives as well, and four more sons are born. Finally, Rachel gives birth to Yosef.
After working for Lavan for twenty years, Yaakov decides it’s time to bring his family back home. But he does so stealthily, fearing Lavan’s reaction. Lavan, angry that Yaakov left, pursues them, but is warned in a Divine vision to avoid harming Yaakov. They eventually make a peace pact. The family then continues their journey to Cannaan and along the way, Yaakov is met by messengers of God. We will learn more about them next week!
Yaakov: A little brother with a big plan. What’s rightfully his from birth is finally his reality.
Rachel: The first love of Yaakov’s life, Rachel becomes his second wife.
Leah: The first choice in marriage, for Lavan at least. Her legacy lives on through her sons.
Lavan: Sneaky, calculating, a trickster. He wants more than he will ever deserve.
Rabbi Sacks grapples with the question of Yaakov’s character. On the one hand, we see Yaakov as a simple man, the younger, weaker, and unloved brother.
On the other hand, we see Yaakov as clever, and able to out-wit even the strongest and most conniving of men. And then, lastly, the third element of Yaakov’s identity is of a strong and confrontational leader himself – after he wrestles with the malach (in parshat Vayishlach). So how can we reconcile all three versions of Yaakov and his journey to becoming Yisrael? What kind of man is he?
Rabbi Sacks suggests that within Yaakov’s transformative process, even from the early years, we see a strength and resilience that reflects that of the Jewish people throughout history. Yaakov refuses to accept his victim status, and continuously reacts and changes until he ultimately becomes Yisrael. At this point he becomes a light unto other nations, a strong leader committed to his morals, his people, and to God.
- How can you apply the concept of resilience to your own life? What does it mean to be resilient in the first place?
In acknowledgement of all of the deception and switches that abound in parshat Vayetse, let’s play “The Detective Game”.
First choose one player to be the Detective. This player leaves the room. Another player changes something minor about their appearance.
When the Detective returns, they must try to spot what has changed. Switch and repeat.
Try to get more and more subtle with your changes, to the point that even Yaakov wouldn’t be able to tell the difference!
Practically speaking, how can we apply the concept of Yaakov’s transformation to our own lives?
Rabbi Sacks highlights this journey as one of moral courage. Yaakov’s life, marked by early struggles against stronger adversaries and, later, by a defining encounter with the malach, exemplifies a journey of introspection and growth.
This transformation is akin to teshuvah, the process of turning inward, reflecting, and emerging as a better version of oneself.
Yaakov’s story illustrates this confrontation of one’s past, learning from it, and harnessing inner strength for moral development. It teaches us the value of always reassessing our actions and intentions, encouraging us to grow and improve daily.
This is a practical and profound mitzvah we can apply in our lives, embodying the spirit of continuous self-improvement and ethical refinement.
So how can you be like Yaakov and pursue continuous change? Setting aside a few minutes of time each day for self-reflection is the perfect way to begin. And then ask yourself:
- What is something you feel proud of that you did today?
- What is something you’d like to do differently tomorrow?
A Hero Transformed
Meet Mike Flanagan. Born in Ireland in 1926, Mike was raised in a Catholic family. When World War II broke out, Mike was only 16, but he was eager to join the fight, and he enlisted in the British Army.
Both a soldier at the Normandy invasion in 1944 in France, and then later part of the Liberation of Jews of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945, it goes without saying that Mike was a young man with a lot of life experience under his belt. When the war ended, he was sent to a post in British Mandated Palestine as a technician.
Full of sympathy for their plight, and inspired by seeing the resilience and strength of the Jews there, Mike couldn’t just stand by and watch. He yearned help and support this brave group of people in establishing the State of Israel.
His opportunity came in 1948 during the War of Independence. Mike, together with another British solider (Harry McDonald), stole two armoured tanks from the British Army and drove them all the way to Tel-Aviv, where the Haganah was waiting for them. These tanks were even more important than you might think. They soon became the foundation for the Israeli Armed Corps.
You might think that Mike would have been “tanked” after defecting to the Israeli army. Or maybe that he would return to Ireland. However, he ended up staying and fighting with the Jewish people for the establishment of the State of Israel.
So, how did Mike’s story end? After the War of Independence, Mike decided to transform himself by converting to Judaism. He adopted the Hebrew name Michael Peleg and married Ruth Levy, a fellow soldier whom he had met on active service. The two married in a Tel Aviv cafe and Harry McDonald stood up as his best man.
As Jews we do not believe we must convince all non-Jews to convert to Judaism. No-one asked Mike to change his religion. But being part of a nation with morals and values and seeing the determination and resolve unfold before his eyes led to Mike to wish to make this transformation.
Here’s another cool thing about Mike’s story. You can see the very tank that he stole today – it stands in the Armoured Corps Museum in Latrun, Israel.
Question: This week’s sedra contains the only 2 Aramaic words in the Torah. Can you find them?
(See below for the answer)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer: The only two Aramaic words in the Torah are Yegar Sahaduta. This is the name given to the pillar erected at the site of the covenant between Yaakov and Lavan. (See Bereishit 31:47).
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks