The Character of Our Patriarch, Jacob

Dear Rabbi, 

As Jacob is coming home to Canaan, does he realize how lucky he has been? He has not one but two wives; he has eleven children and his wife Rachel is about to give birth to a twelfth; he is a wealthy man with all of his livestock. How does he think he acquired all that was given to him? Up to this point, has he thanked G-d for what has happened to him? The reason I ask these questions comes from the First Aliyah when the following takes place:

And Jacob said, "O G-d of my father Abraham and G-d of my father Isaac, the Lord, Who said to me, 'Return to your land and to your birthplace, and I will do good to you.

I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children.

And You said, 'I will surely do good with you, and I will make your seed [as numerous] as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of multitude.'"

To me, here we have another example of Jacob asking for something but what has he done to earn this request? Sure in this Aliyah, he thanks G-d for all that he has, but had he given thanks before this juncture? He reminds G-d that G-d had promised him something and now that he feels he is in trouble, he is attempting to have G-d make good on this promise.

I am getting way ahead of myself and to those that are reading this, this is a spoiler alert, at some point in the future, G-d makes a covenant with the Jewish people. Without getting overly legal, a covenant is a contract. A contract is someone giving a promise to do something, and in return for that promise, the other side has to give consideration. G-d’s promise was to make the Jewish people the “chosen people” but in return the Jewish people had to accept G-d and follow his laws.

What consideration did Jacob give G-d for G-d to make good on his promise to protect Jacob? Remember last week Jacob said he would follow G-d only if G-d protected him. Why didn’t Jacob acknowledge all that was given to him until he needed G-d to protect him from his brother Esau? It seems to me that Jacob thinks of G-d only when he needs him.

This may be a common trait of many people, and do they use Jacob as their example? As I have already asked you, how many people come to you as a rabbi and ask you to explain how they can ask G-d to help them in a time of need, like an illness? Do they state that they will be more devout if they get through the problem? How many of those that do recover, ever really go through with their promise?

Maybe, Jacob did become more pious as time went on, but a literal reading of the Torah does not show this to be the case. Prove me wrong. 



Dear Mordecai,

What animates Jacob in the verses you cite – 32:10-13 – is the gap between Divine Promise and reality. We all feel this gap. I do not criticize Jacob for acknowledging this gap. We live with this gap now, and I admire anyone who openly acknowledges it.

I disagree with you that the G-d’s promise was to make the Jewish people the “chosen people.” The reference to the Jews as the “chosen” people” only occurs in Deuteronomy. The promise is 1) the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be as numerous as the stars and 2) they will inherit the land of Canaan making it into the Land of Israel.

When we read the actual moment of revelation, we can return to our discussion of the covenant.  

In answer to your question, most people who are ill or who have family members that are ill ask to be put on the mi sheberakh list. But very few of them ask me how they can propitiate G-d to heal them. None has followed that up with a promise to be more observant if they are healed.

What you write, though, reminds me of a joke. A man is late for a meeting and can’t find a parking place. He’s driving around looking for a space and becoming more and more anxious that he’s going to miss the meeting. “Oh G-d,” he says. “Help me find a parking spot. I’ll start keeping kosher.” The man keeps driving and finds no spot. “G-d, I will pray every day.” Still no parking spot. “I promise that I will put on tefi---- Forget it, I just found one.”

I think your framing of Jacob and the issue of gratitude is only half the story. Consider Laban’s exploitation of him. Does Jacob’s speech in 31:38-42 strike you as blissful?

I’ll say two more things about Jacob. First, he wrestled with his demons (a man) until dawn. Jacob went inside himself and sought to rectify who he was. This all happens before he meets Esau. He is rewarded with a new name, Israel. Jacob always remains, and Israel and Jacob vie within the same person for dominance.

The second point about Jacob is that he’s already showing signs of frailty, of being superseded by his sons. Going forward, his problems will be less of his own making. They will be things that happen to him. For example, note what he says to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me…” (34:30).



Dear Rabbi,

I respectfully disagree with your analysis of his encounters this week. Sure he has this "gap" as you put it, but just as your joke infers, one asks G-d's help but when something comes up in one's favor, that person thinks they did it on their own. Laban is merely payback for what he did to Esau. And while we are on that episode of Jacob's life, Laban gave him both of his daughters and the first seven years went by in a flash to Jacob because of getting his prized Rachel. Further, Jacob became rich, while under Laban's influence and he raised quite a family while with his father-in-law. So in the end, how bad was it while he was in Laban's house? 

We will discuss the covenant at a later time, but be advised that a "nudum pactim" (a naked promise) is unenforceable in the law. 

The Torah is remarkable for what we don't know. Jacob has that all night struggle and prevails, but what the details are of what they fought over is never really explained. I know it is over what Esau will do to him, but his overcoming the "man" in the struggle proved what? 

As to Jacob and his sons, let us wait until the upcoming parshahs to pursue that issue. But for this week, why doesn't Jacob do something to avenge what happened to Dinah? His sons may have acted rashly, but they wanted to bring their sister back with some dignity. Jacob's response gives me pause, and to me again shows that his thoughts are "Jacob first" and his children, as well as others, take a second position.  Ask yourself this, is there anything that you would not do for your son?



Dear Mordecai,

I also wonder about Jacob’s response to the rape of Dinah. I will even strengthen your case.

5 Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home.

6 Then Shechem’s father Hamor came out to Jacob to speak to him.

7 Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing not to be done.

8 And Hamor spoke with them, saying, “My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage.

9 Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves:

10 You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you; settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.”

11 Then Shechem said to her father and brothers, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me.

12 Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”

13 Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor—speaking with guile because he had defiled their sister Dinah—

Jacob is terribly passive. Was he too shocked? I don’t know if you can say that Jacob was putting himself first in the incident with Dina. What went down occurred before he could stop it. Once the deed was done, he only had poor options before him.

You certainly are willing to read the Torah in ways that differ from the tradition. Elevating Lavan is quite a task.

What is a “nudum pactim”?

The ambiguity involved in Jacob’s wrestling with the man is enormous. That is where the boldness of interpretation gains ascendance. Don’t you think that before you go to reconcile with someone that you have to undergo and inner reckoning beforehand to prepare? That is how I read this passage.