So the question returns. What kind of man was Jacob? He seems anything but an ish tam, a straightforward man. And surely this is not the way for a religious role model to behave – in such a way that first his father, then his brother, then his father-in-law, accuse him of deceit. What kind of story is the Torah telling us in the way it narrates the life of Jacob?
One way of approaching an answer is to look at a specific character – often a hare, or in African-American tradition, “Brer rabbit” – in the folktales of oppressed people. Henry Louis Gates, the American literary critic, has argued that such figures represent “the creative way the slave community responded to the oppressor’s failure to address them as human beings created in the image of G-d.” They have “a fragile body but a deceptively strong mind.” Using their intelligence to outwit their stronger opponents, they are able to deconstruct and subvert, in small ways, the hierarchy of dominance favoring the rich and the strong. They represent the momentary freedom of the unfree, a protest against the random injustices of the world.
That, it seems to me, is what Jacob represents in this, the early phase of his life. He enters the world as the younger of twins. His brother is strong, ruddy, hairy, a skillful hunter, a man of the open country. He is quiet, a scholar. Then he must confront the fact that his father loves his brother more than him. Then he finds himself at the mercy of Laban, a possessive, exploitative and deceptive figure who takes advantage of his vulnerability. Jacob is the man who – as almost all of us do at some time or other – finds that life is unfair.
What Jacob shows, by his sheer quick-wittedness, is that the strength of the strong can also be their weakness. So it is when Esau comes in exhausted from the hunt, and is willing impetuously to trade his birthright for some soup. So it is when the blind Isaac is prepared to bless the son who will bring him venison to eat. So it is when Laban hears the prospect of getting Jacob’s labor for free. Every strength has its Achilles’ heel, its weakness, and this can be used by the weak to gain victory over the strong.
Jacob represents the refusal of the weak to accept the hierarchy created by the strong. His acts are a form of defiance, an insistence on the dignity of the weak (vis-à-vis Esau), the less loved (by Isaac), and the refugee (in Laban’s house). In this sense he is one element of what, historically, it has been like to be a Jew.
But the Jacob we see in these chapters is not the figure whom, ultimately, we are called on to emulate. We can see why. Jacob wins his battles with Esau and Laban but only at the cost of eventually having to flee in fear of his life. Quick-wittedness is only a temporary solution.
It is only later, after his wrestling match with the angel, that he receives a new name – that is, a new identity – Israel, “because you have struggled with G-d and with men and have overcome.” As Israel he is unafraid to contend with people face-to-face. He no longer needs to outwit them by clever, but ultimately futile, stratagems. His children will eventually become the people whose dignity lies in the unbreakable covenant they make with G-d.
Yet we can see something of Jacob’s early life in one of the most remarkable features of Jewish history. For almost two thousand years Jews were looked down on as pariahs, yet they refused to internalize that image, just as Jacob refused to accept the hierarchies of power or affection that condemned him to be merely second best. They, like Jacob, relied not on physical strength or material wealth but on qualities of the mind. In the end, though, Jacob must become Israel. For it is not the quick-witted victor but the hero of moral courage who stands tall in the eyes of humanity and G-d.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).