Avraham Burg

Toledot—These Are the Generations

By Avraham Burg

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Genesis 25:19–28:9

Jacob: A Simple Man?

The fact is that our father Jacob was a liar in his youth. It’s also true that by the end of the story, he is the most upright patriarch of them all. As opposed to Abraham and Isaac, he never told anyone that his wife was his sister. He never followed voices that weren’t the voices of his heart, the way Abraham did when he banished Hagar and Ishmael, and he never climbed onto an altar in defiance of the most basic instinct of survival. To his misfortune, however, even though he managed to break free of his personal cycle of lies he was never able to escape the culture of lies and deceit into which he was born. Some people are simply unable to change, no matter how hard they try. Look at how many times Jacob changed his surroundings, moved to new places hoping to change his luck, even changed his name and his occupation, and yet he was never able to shake the reputation for dishonesty that he had gotten stuck with early on. From his childhood years right up to his last day on earth he moved from place to place, investing so much energy in wandering, uprooting himself, settling into new places. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t invest enough of his inner resources in the personal change that might have spared him some of his suffering.

From the moment he entered the world he was stuck with the demeaning name Ya’acov (coming up from behind), which became synonymous with slyness and cunning. How did the prophet Jeremiah interpret the name centuries later?

Oh that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging-place of wayfaring men, that I might leave my people, and go from them! For they are all adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men. And they bend their tongue, their bow of falsehood; and they are grown mighty in the land, but not for truth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and me they know not, saith the Lord. Take ye heed every one of his neighbor, and trust ye not in any brother; for every brother acteth subtly [ya’acov, the same word as Jacob’s name; italics added], and every neighbor goeth about with slanders. And they deceive every one his neighbor, and truth they speak not; they have taught their tongue to speak lies, they weary themselves to commit iniquity. Thy habitation is in the midst of deceit; through deceit they refuse to know me, saith the Lord” (Jer. 9:1–5).

The sad prophet is as much as telling us that our national character during the era of the First Temple derives entirely from the personality of the third patriarch, the father of the tribes, our father Ya’acov – Jacob.

A child was born simple and pure, but the name they gave him never left him for a moment. I assume that the marvel of the birth of twins always carries with it the question of why this one was born first and that one second, and vice versa. When Judah and Tamar had their twins Peretz and Zerach (Gen. 38:27–30), the child who broke through first was given a name that was also a trait, peretz (breach or breakthrough). That is, the initiator, the first, the competitor. In our story the competitive initiator was in fact the second twin, Jacob. From his birth until his death and even beyond, lies enveloped him like cobwebs and he couldn’t rid himself of them.

Let’s count the lies in the order that they are recounted in the biblical narrative. The stories of Esau are well known: Jacob grabbed his brother’s heel during birth, purchasing his birthright, stealing their father’s blessing and more. His relations with Laban were not much better. It’s not clear who cheated whom, but the lie shrouded Jacob for twenty-one years living in his father-in-law’s home. He wanted Rachel but received Leah. Wanting to be free, he flees by trickery. As they flee, Rachel hides the household idols she stole from her father under her saddle. The women buy and sell Jacob’s love and his seed behind his back in exchange for their sons’ mandrake flowers. As he enters the land of Canaan, his sons Simeon and Levi deceive him and deceive the men of Shechem: they promise the men of Shechem a marriage agreement that they have no right to offer and never intend to honor. And while the men of Shechem are still weak from the circumcisions they underwent as part of the agreement, Simeon and Levi and their brothers destroy the city.

Later on the sons kidnap Joseph, smear goat’s blood on his multicolored cloak and then show it to their father and tell the family’s greatest lie of all: “This we have found. Know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not?” (Gen. 37:32), leading Jacob to believe that his best-loved son has been killed. Later still, Joseph – who is now viceroy to the king of Egypt – denies his brothers, mocks and hoodwinks them in the finest family tradition. Like father, like son – the master conniver, who knows how to manufacture realities to serve his goals. The brothers return to Jacob with the bad news. In the end, Joseph’s strategem brings his father to him in Egypt. But even Jacob’s death doesn’t end the intrigue. When their father dies, the brothers come to Joseph, the viceroy, and invent a fictitious will that Jacob supposedly left – all so that Joseph won’t try to get even with them for their childhood cruelty toward him:

And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said: “It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him.” And they sent a message unto Joseph, saying: “Thy father did command before he died, saying: So shall ye say unto Joseph: ‘Forgive, I pray thee now, the transgression of thy brethren, and their sin, for that they did unto thee evil.’ And now, we pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of thy father.” (Gen. 50:15–17)

When Jacob said to Pharaoh, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life” (Gen. 47:9), he was essentially saying, I am the most lied-to father in the Bible. Nobody else has been treated the way I have been treated, and I’m not happy about it.

We must ask ourselves: Why? Why did this happen to him? The Midrash sees part of his adventures as tit for tat and tells us about it in sad but marvelous stories. Of Leah, the Aggadah has this to say:

She would hear people saying, Rebecca has two sons and Laban has two daughters, the elder daughter for the elder son and the younger for the younger. And she would sit at the crossroads and ask people, What does the older son do? He is a bad man, and he robs people. And the small one, what does he do? He is a simple man, a dweller in tents. And she would sit and weep until her eyelashes fell out. (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayetze 155)

Leah, the elder daughter, believed she was promised to her elder cousin Esau the bandit, while Rachel, her younger sister, would be happily married to the young, good-hearted Jacob. If we follow this thought just a little further, we can see how the logic of the Aggadah justifies the switching of the brides. Remember, Jacob had bought the birthright of the firstborn by trickery and made himself the legally designated firstborn. It therefore made sense that he should marry the firstborn daughter first. This tit-for-tat storyline continues in other traditional sources right up to the wedding night:

All night she pretended to be Rachel, until he got up in the morning and “behold, it was Leah” (Gen. 29:25). He said to her: daughter of a swindler! Why did you cheat me? She said to him: And you, why did you cheat your father? When your father said to you, “Art thou my very son Esau?” (Gen. 27:24) you said to him, “I am Esau thy first-born” (Gen. 27:19). And now you come and say, why did you cheat me?! Didn’t your father say of you, “Thy brother came with guile”?! (Gen. 27:35). (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayetze)

There is a value in probing deeper than the gloating of the narrator and the Aggadists over the family’s miseries. Why did all this happen to our aging ancestor? It could be that everything began with the mother and was passed on directly to the son. Her life’s circumstances weren’t easy. Certainly she wasn’t sheltered like Isaac, who spent his childhood as though swaddled in cotton. He was all but suffocated by his parents’ ceaseless efforts to protect him and prevent life from ever touching him. Ishmael was banished, servants were sent abroad to bring him a wife, and his father’s fanatical faith nearly cost him his life. Rashi is blunt regarding the joint prayer that the childless Isaac and Rebecca offered up for a child, and the answer God gave to Isaac’s prayer but not the prayer of the barren mother: “There is no comparing the prayer of a righteous person, son of a righteous person, and a righteous person with a wicked father; therefore [God answered] him and not her.”

Rebecca, according to the later sources, was “the daughter of a wicked man and the sister of a wicked man, and she grew up among the wicked and did not learn from their deeds” (Rashi on Gen. 25:20). Perhaps she didn’t learn from them in the sense that she became sly and devious like them, but some of their traits rubbed off on her nonetheless. Look at how skillfully she produced Jacob’s disguise and taught him how to deceive his father. And he? Little Jacob, the dweller in tents, was always hanging around the family encampment – probably the worst place to learn honesty and straight shooting. That was where all the rumors ended up, where all the gossip was traded, where all the intrigues were cooked up. To survive there, you had to learn how to cut corners and make compromises with the truth. That was where the worldly-wise mother raised and educated her wise son – and it did not end there.

When the biblical narrator calls Jacob “a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Gen. 25:27), this is not a redundancy, restating the same quality of mildness. On the contrary, this embodies the very spiritual tension that tore Jacob apart throughout his life: a mild man at heart, but wise in the ways of the encampment. His honesty was inborn, while his campsite survivor’s instincts were an acquired trait that helped him succeed in life. The innocent do not necessarily inherit the earth, and whenever his innocence threatened his wellbeing, he was able to fall back on his skills as a camp dweller to survive the complexities of life in our region. Abraham was a one-dimensional believer, and Isaac was his father’s follower, largely lacking in character. Only Jacob contained within him all these characteristics. His whole life was an inner struggle in his soul: the straight against the crooked, the simple against the camp dweller, his inner Isaac against his inner Rebecca. And this inner struggle continues right up to our own day.


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