Debating Jacob


Dear Rabbi:

As I read various parshahs, I conjure up various thoughts that I take away from what I have just digested. My immediate thoughts upon finishing Vayishlach were:

The first being synonyms for “righteous”, which include: virtuous, moral, good, just, blameless, upright, honorable, honest, respectable and decent.

The second is the following quote: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

This quotation taken from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is one that suggests that names themselves neither hold worth nor meaning, and they simply act as labels to distinguish one thing or person from another. Juliet is applying the metaphor of a rose to Romeo: even if he had a different name, he would still be the man she loves. I will deal with my second thought when I get to where I think it fits within Vayishlach.

The first is something I often think of when I read about Jacob. How many of the synonyms mentioned above apply to Jacob? From my earlier comments about Jacob, I guess you would say my opinion would be not many if any. As I read on, I would like to see how many come into play within this week’s parshah. If you really want to attribute one or some to Jacob so far, to me, the only time he had any of the attributes of “righteousness” was in his dealings with Laban, where Jacob kept up his part of the bargain.  

In this week’s episode of the ongoing saga of Jacob, he has left his father-in-law’s home and is traveling back to Canaan.

I always ask you questions and the very first sentence of the First Aliyah, Genesis 32:4 has me somewhat mystified when the following is stated:

“Jacob sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.”

How does one summon an angel especially one who to this point has not merited the right to ask for favors? They come back with a report that Esau is coming with 400 of his men. Jacob immediately panics and does something many of us call on when we think we are in trouble as Jacob asks the following at Genesis 32:10:

“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.”

How many times while under Laban’s roof of relative safety did Jacob ask for help from the Almighty? For that matter, how many of us think of the Lord when we believe we things are going well? I will always remember the immediate days after 9/11 when most of us wanted an answer from "up above" that everything was going to be all right. The JJC called for a special prayer gathering right after that awful day of infamy to try and calm the congregation's fears.

I digress, but Jacob now wants to collect from what G-d told him twenty years prior. While I am trying to find the evolution of Jacob on his path to righteousness, I am struck by the very next sentence after asking for help in Genesis 32:11:

“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.”

In previous conversations, you came back to me about how “tough” it was living with Laban, but for maybe the first and maybe the last time in the text, Jacob recognizes how lucky he has been under the protection of the Lord. I struggle with the term “righteousness” but I know it is not someone who expects a return for “doing the right thing”.

I really don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but Jacob’s mind played out a scenario concerning his brother that gave him great fear but was in reality unjustified and I will leave this future teaser with three words, “The Twelve Spies”.

Getting back to this week’s events, we are now getting to the second thought I mentioned above. In the Second Aliyah at Genesis 32:27-29, the following is stated:  

“And he (the angel) said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking," but he (Jacob) said, "I will not let you go unless you have blessed me."

“So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob."

“And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed."

I love showing you angels because of your previous responses as to what they represent. The one here is allegedly Esau’s archangel. Jacob triumphs over a superior being and demands a blessing for his efforts, and what he is told is he will be given a new name, Israel, which apparently from what I have read means, “he who prevails over the divine.”

This leads to many questions. The first came to me as I was reading this name transformation. Avram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, but Isaac never has his name changed. What significance, if any, does this have? Further, if the definition I have given is correct, does this really apply to Jacob? If it does, does Israel’s namesake, the land all Jews call their home, deserve this same definition? If so, it truly does “smell as sweet”.

I should leave my thoughts to what I stated above, but to show that I do retain what you previously conveyed, I would venture to say, you are touched by the Third Aliyah at Genesis 33:4 when we read:

“And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

This is of course after Esau and Jacob meet and are both overcome by their reunion. Esau weeps for a second time in the Torah for seeing his brother again and maybe Jacob does it for the same reason or maybe because he realizes his brother is not going to kill him, which might knock off some of the synonyms mentioned above.

Now that I am back on questioning Jacob’s “growth”, I am troubled with what Jacob says in the Fifth Aliyah at Genesis 34:30:

Thereupon, Jacob said to Simeon and to Levi, "You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against me and attack me, and I and my household will be destroyed."

The above is the reaction of Jacob to Simeon and Levi coming to the defense of their sister Dinah after she had been defiled by Schechem and there is talk of the Hivites intermingling with Jacob’s family, which would mean intermarriage between the two tribes. All Jacob can do is worry about his own safety and berate his sons for their act of revenge but to me, Jacob again shows a lack of leadership and understanding of what his sons prevented. I seem to be getting ahead of myself yet again but I will give you but one name, “Phinehas”.

I leave you with one final observation and question as it relates to Jacob. In the Sixth Aliyah at Genesis 35:19-20, the following is stated:

“So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.”

“And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.”

Jacob’s beloved wife dies and he buries her and gives her a fitting tombstone but where is the expression of grief? He weeps after his reunion with his brother but does not seem to shed a tear upon the loss of Rachel. To me, Jacob is a truly complex character and probably is the subject of more Midrashim than one can count in order to make Jacob look “good” despite no written evidence in the Torah to corroborate this conclusion.



Dear Mordecai,

In your gathering of synonyms for “righteous,” you have missed one component of righteousness. It is not present in all cases of righteousness, but it is present in some. That is the ability to endure suffering.

You ask about the angels that go out to greet Esau. The Hebrew word is malachim. That word is also translated as messengers, human beings.

Isaac may not undergo a name change because he lives in the Land his entire life. Please tell me more what you mean by this: “What significance, if any, does this have? Further, if the definition I have given is correct, does this really apply to Jacob? If it does, does Israel’s namesake, the land all Jews call their home, deserve this same definition? If so, it truly does ‘smell as sweet’.”

Your prosecution – can I call it anything else? – of Jacob continues.

You challenge Jacob’s rebuke of Simeon and Levi, but do you really think Simeon and Levi acted rightly? Finally, you criticize Jacob for not weeping after Rachel’s death. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In short, Jacob’s righteousness can be seen in how he endures suffering. Consider this account of Jacob’s life:

  1. He is forced to flee from his home because his brother threatens to murder him.
    1. As a result, we never hear of him seeing his mother or his father again.
  2. He was exploited by his father-in-law.
  3. His father-in-law deceived him into marrying someone he did not want to.
  4. When he encounters Esau, Esau has an army of four hundred men to greet him, endangering him and his entire family.
  5. He is unable to protect his daughter from rape.
  6. The woman he loves dies, and he is forced to bury her on the side of the road.

 These are only the six events that have taken place up to this point. I can build on this with future parshiot, but so can you. You have dealt with some of theses six facts, but I think your readings are tendentious. I think you should revisit these six facts of Jacob’s life and ask yourself earnestly. Did Jacob suffer?



Dear Rabbi:

In no way do I have a bias towards Jacob. My "prosecution" of Jacob as you put it is merely a recitation of the facts and circumstances that was Jacob's life. What has bothered me are the midrashim that take plain facts and turn them around to make Jacob look good. Why is that necessary? Your synonym in no way applies to Jacob. If anything, any suffering on the part of Jacob is self inflicted. Your attempt to make him righteous takes away from my overall question of why someone is "chosen". There are many examples of people that are righteous but in no way are considered chosen.

Taking your six examples of Jacob's "suffering" I see the following:

1. As to him being forced to flee because his brother threatens to kill him, wasn't it Jacob that took Esau's birthright and then his blessing. Is he supposed to get a pass despite his own actions?

2. His "exploitation" at the hands of his father-in-law should be looked at very carefully. Laban gave him two wives, which resulted in twelve children. There is no greater blessing to a Jew than having a large family. Take that from someone that was not allowed to have a big family "tribe" as a result of the actions of a madman during WWII. Jacob's dislike of Leah was again something he created but it did not stop him from jumping into bed with her on a regular basis. Say what you will for the way Laban kept changing the bargain he made with Jacob, but the end result was that Jacob became very rich.

3. As to Leah, see "2" above.

4. What evidence can you show from the Torah's depiction of the reunion of the two brothers that Jacob or his family was in some sort of danger. Again, it is Jacob that thinks his brother will still carry the grudge that Jacob created. What does Esau do? Without any hesitation, he embraces his brother and shows an emotion that seems to register with you. He sobs upon seeing his only brother. Where was Jacob's compassion? Yes he also cried but for what reason?

5. Your conclusion that Jacob could not protect his daughter from rape is almost laughable. Yes she was defiled, but what reaction do  we see from Jacob, nothing. It is her brothers, Simeon and Levi, that come to her defense and succeed. Maybe their actions were reckless, but they did not hesitate to protect their sister's reputation. All Jacob could think of when he heard of the deed that was done was that he might be in trouble again. 

6. Did Abraham just bury Sarah on the road when she died? If the act of burying Rachel on the road is an example of suffering, I don't understand how. If there was a better place to lay Rachel to rest, he should have taken proper steps to see that it occurred. Regardless of where she was buried, why is there no description of how he felt?

What do I mean by asking what significance, if any, that Isaac's name was not changed? Avram becomes Abraham and it is with this name that he is considered the "First Jew". Jacob becomes Israel and his new name becomes the name of the land all Jews consider theirs. These are two of the most monumental events in all of Jewish history. I don't understand that because Isaac does not leave the land that there is no transformational event associated with him that might cause a name change. As to remarking on Jacob's name change to Israel, as I understood the meaning of the word "Israel", it was “he who prevails over the divine".  The name change was the result of his fight with the "angel" not a human. Is the land of Israel to be given the same definition as given to our patriarch? if so, that is some explanation for the name give to the land and it would be mighty "sweet".