Jacob and Esau

And Jacob Fought the Angel – Part B

by

Howard Adelman

Who then was Jacob? What was he like? I have tried to indicate that he was far from just a passive patsy. The struggle he had with the so-called angel was not an epiphany in which a new person was born, but an event in which Jacob came to realize himself in his full potential. His character did not fundamentally change as Wiesel suggests. Nor was this simply and simplistically a marking of a new point of maturation as the visiting rabbi to our Torah study group had suggested. Rather, the very same character was subjected to an ultimate test, a test that proved that he was worthy of being renamed Israel.

Who was the stranger, the man with whom he fought? He was not an assailant or an aggressor as Elie Wiesel depicted. For the struggle is NOT about aggression. It is about using one’s body to achieve a meeting of hearts. Why then did Jacob insist on receiving the stranger’s blessing before he released him. Did Jacob believe that the stranger had an inheritance to bestow upon him? If so, what was the inheritance? To be God’s messenger. The man was NOT an angel, NOT a messenger, but God in an embodied form. He did not bring a message but a blessing with enormous consequences in history.

Why did the man or God not want to continue the wrestling match beyond dawn (שָׁ֫חַר)? It was at the dawning of a new day that the angels urged Lot to rise and take his wife and two daughters and flee Sodom. (Genesis 19:15) It is after dawn that God wracks havoc on the world. With the exception of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, fasting begins on all other fast days at dawn rather than when the sun sets the evening before. I believe that it is because neither Yom Kippur nor Tisha B’Av are about mitzvot. Mourning requires twenty-four hours. Blessings begin at daybreak, at sunrise (netz hachamah), at the moment when one can see and recognize another. For mitzvoth are always intersubjective. Catastrophes tend to be individually or collectively singular.

But what about shabat? Is it not a blessing in itself? Does not shabat begin at sunset (shkiah)? Do we not welcome shabat like the return of a dearly beloved at the Friday evening service? It is not only because we need the full night to recover from a week of work so that we can truly celebrate and enjoy the day of rest. We need to be completely inside a new metaphysical time zone, a time that requires a radical shift in the unconscious to appreciate. Whereas our usual habits in the day are to be seekers and acquisitors, we require a very different bodily and mental state on shabat. Friday night is used to rejuvenate ourselves, to cocoon away from external stimuli.

But that is not how Jacob and the stranger spend the night. They wrestle until the dawn of day. And not to collect speckled and streaked and mottled sheep. But to what end? So that Jacob can prove he can last. So that Jacob can prevail. So that Jacob can be recognized for who he truly is and be blessed with a new name to signify that recognition. So that Jacob can be reborn in full self-consciousness of who he is. The sun rises on its own account. Out of the darkness, out of the sea of the unconscious life, Jacob will now rise higher and higher in the sky to look down upon a much bigger world. Jacob comes to recognize his own significance, why he was placed in this world. Jacob will have his own gunfight at noon. But he will not shoot. He will not be shot at. He is now destined to reach the zenith of who he is and will be ever after. The rest will be the responsibility of his descendants. The rest will be commentary as his twelve sons and daughter carry the responsibility for the continuation of his lineage.

But is this not Elie Wiesel’s thesis, that Jacob is reborn a new man? Yes and no. I argue his character is unchanged. It has just gone through its final stage of fulfillment. He does not become a new man such that his personality changes. He retains the name of Jacob while Abraham discarded the name Abram. But he becomes a new man because he comes to full self-consciousness of who he is and who he is destined to become. Abraham was promised that he would become the father of a great nation. So was Isaac. But neither absorbed that message into their inner being. Because both remained beholden to God and dependent upon Him. Abraham was even willing to sacrifice his son because he was told to do so. Jacob acquires his own place in the sun. Jacob, in contrast, stood up to God. Jacob wrestled with a man he had come to recognize at dawn was God.

God’s vanity was not damaged in the process, as Elie Wiesel contends. There is not even a hint of that in the text. Further, it is what God wanted for the forefathers of the Jewish people. It is not that Jacob’s task was any different than that of his father or grandfather. It was the same task. But only Jacob made it part of his entire being. Only Jacob absorbed the full responsibility for achieving that task. Jacob all along was neither a coward nor a rash individual. He was truly courageous because he calculated his chances, he figured the odds and he took steps to mitigate untoward damages. But most of all, he was unstinting. He would not give up. He would not even surrender to God’s will as his grandfather had. For faith and trust are not irrational leaps but must be earned. And it must stand on the ground of love, not a rational calculation. This is what he had been taught by his two wives and was a lesson that neither Abraham nor Isaac ever learned. Hence the schisms of their children instead of a unity that absorbed and raised up differences.

A reader, and esteemed writer in his own right, after my last blog, wrote me as follows:

I’ve come to think of the ‘man’ as the embodiment of Jacob’s physical insecurity; the embodiment of his abiding terror in the face of physical courage, which Jacob, the younger brother, and naturally somewhat in awe of Esau’s primordial power, feared he lacked. Before meeting Esau, he had to face his terror and overcome it, leaving him wounded but brave. The irony is that Esau turned out to be such a mensch. No doubt, he had a match the night before, too, not a wrestling match, but a brilliant debate, which he won.

That is dead on. The historical rabbinical portrayal of Esau as the embodiment of evil is so mistaken. Esau was a mensch. He was an honest down-to-earth guy, ruddy in complexion and hairy like an animal. But he certainly was not a beast. He loved his brother and could forgive him even for the most heinous acts in terms of everyday ethics. But Jacob had a higher, a loftier destiny that he took into his very being. He struggled with God and prevailed because he took on the responsibility for the future of the world, for the future of humanity, for the future of a people destined to be a light unto the nations.

Elie Wiesel said that Jacob, before Peniel, was honest and anxious to avoid risks. He was neither honest and only anxious to take unnecessary risks. He was courageous, as Aristotle recognized, because he was not rash. He was a second-born. He had proven his dedication. He had proven he was a man in his own right and not the weakling manipulated by others in Elie Wiesel’s depiction. He did not simply obey. He figured out how to get around and use the treachery of his uncle Laban. He figured out how to earn the loyalty of both his wives so that they clung to him rather than their own father. Finally, rather than being “incapable of initiative,” it was he as well as the stranger, who would be revealed at the dawning of the next day to be God, who initiated the historic battle and emerged a winner, not by defeating God, but by fully absorbing God’s creativity, God’s sense of responsibility, God’s sense of service to the future of his own nation and that of humanity. The lesson was embedded into his very being.

Esau was the mensch. Jacob was the father of a different nation, one that would have to survive by wile rather than natural strength or numbers, one that would have to create wealth rather than wrest it out of an unforgiving ground. That requires political calculation, not naiveté. That requires not risking all even when your brother demonstrates he is a mensch of the highest order. For a mensch can turn on you if you cross him. His righteousness can turn on a dime into a withering critique and determined opposition. And as a leader, Jacob would be required to make tough decisions. So rather than a follower, he had always been a leader. In the battle with the stranger, he came to realize who he was and what his responsibilities were. He could not risk it all in reconciling with his brother. That is why Esau comes across the next day as the very opposite of the evil one, as the trues mensch in the story.

A reader of my blog sent me the following referenced to Delacroix’s depiction of Jacob wrestling with the “angel” that can be found in St. Sulpice in Paris

https://www.google.ca/search?q=delacroix+jacob+wrestling+with+the+angel&espv=2&biw=1280&bih=622&tbm=isch&imgil=ssx62EkzFnyWWM%253A%253B2Si9hecy7O1ucM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.allposters.com%25252F-sp%25252FJacob-Wrestling-with-the-Angel-1850-Posters_i2576155_.htm&source=iu&pf=m&fir=ssx62EkzFnyWWM%253A%252C2Si9hecy7O1ucM%252C_&usg=__ED2wDG_2LucUwTU9kNcfLsa8iLI%3D&ved=0ahUKEwi-goSYpf7QAhXJ5oMKHY3fBGEQyjcILw&ei=ecpWWP7hEMnNjwSNv5OIBg#imgrc=ssx62EkzFnyWWM%3A

This portrait captures the essence of the battle. There is no winged angel on one side larger than life wrestling with Jacob or dancing with him in a loving embrace. Love and struggle can be soul mates. They are not opposites. Rachel’s reciprocal love for her husband and Leah’s unreciprocated love for the same man did not end up ultimately in contestation, but in giving Jacob the strength to realize who he was, the strength to found a nation in which there may be disputes, in which there may be differences, but in which there should be no civil war, a nation in which even a dandy like Joseph could become a great leader. So much for the vision of a warrior king!

Let me repeat what my correspondent had written. The struggle was the embodiment of Jacob’s physical insecurity; the embodiment of his abiding terror in the face of physical courage, which Jacob, the younger brother, and naturally somewhat in awe of Esau’s primordial power, feared he lacked. Before meeting Esau, he had to face his terror and overcome it, leaving him wounded but brave. Does not Delacroix capture this combination of inner and outer struggle, this metaphysical battle that was so physical in the struggle with both God and man?

Elie Wiesel was correct. Jacob’s father, Isaac, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Isaac was blind to the crisis that he had undergone, blind to the merits of the younger twin so enamored was he by Esau’s strength and physical acumen. Even though Isaac had relegated himself to a life of “serenity and meditation,” even though it was he who was the nebbish, not Jacob, that very blindness in the cunning of history would produce a Jacob. Isaac loved the older twin, blind to the merits of the younger which Rebecca could clearly see.

Who would not grow up insecure when you had a father who seemingly did not love you.? But who would not also grow up very secure, more secure even than Esau, with a mother so devoted not only to you but to who you were destined to become. Jacob was vulnerable. But he was also strong. How do you capture and portray both aspects of his character? Delacroix in the end, as much as he humanizes both Jacob and God, ultimately fails because he portrays Jacob as a muscular man rather than as one who wins by guile and calculation, through feints and thrusts like a master of the martial arts. Jacob was more a Bruce Lee than a Sampson figure. Jacob recognized that in battle, and life was a battle, deceit and feints were as important if not more important than blatant honesty. In the end, Jacob proved he was the superior one, proved he had what it took to be a leader because, at his foundation, he was a dreamer. He was a visionary. Abraham may have had visions, but he was not a visionary, merely God’s obedient lackey.

When Jacob had his ladder dream, he was not ready to climb up the ladder. He had to learn that his quest was not upward, not to be a God in heaven, but to be an earthly leader. He had enough sense not to envision climbing the ladder, but enough sense to realize that angels climb down as well as ascend. Unlike his father and grandfather, Jacob did not pledge unstinting trust in God. It was and remained conditional. The proof is in the pudding and not in the recipe, not in the words and promises, however tantalizing. If God delivers, I too will deliver. It will and must be the same in dealing with other individuals and nations. There can be peace between us, but only if in your heart and in your deeds you are peaceful and not because you sign a piece of paper. There must be concrete reciprocity. And to get that, Jacob had to prevail – not kill God, but prove both that he could survive and that he could do so as a self-conscious individual.

Elie Wiesel might trivialize Jacob’s quarrels with Laban, his concern with labour contracts, his mundane preoccupations and his commonplace conversations with his wives and concubines. But the devil is indeed in the details, not in grand metaphysical visions. Jacob was not a man without will or authority, but was a man who knew how to bide his time and wait for the right moment. He allowed Laban to search the belongings of his entourage when Laban caught up with him instead of insisting that he be regarded as innocent until there was some proof that he or someone in his entourage had stolen Laban’s idols. He did not stand on a soapbox and preach the right to privacy when faced with the military might of his father-in-law. This was not crass cowardice, but clever calculation. Jacob always showed he knew where and when to stand his ground and when to retreat.

Wiesel is so down on ordinary worldly matters that he is as blind as Isaac. What is viewed as a shortcoming is Jacob’s strength. For Jacob, this life is an embodied life. For Jacob, his God is an embodied God. And one prevails by taking over the responsibility from God for the embodied world. This does not mean, as rabbinic commentators were prone to do, showering Jacob with virtues he did not possess. Wiesel, in spite of his superior reading, is prone to do the same when he dubs Jacob honest. Jacob is not the just man. Jacob is not pure. Jacob is not a man of traditional piety. Jacob was very far from being righteous. Jacob was very far from being Jesus.

And what about Esau? Commentators usually go to the opposite extreme, portraying him as evil when he was just physical, portraying him as an enemy when he was nothing of the kind. In fact, he was too kind and not overwhelmed by his own strength. He could have easily grabbed the lentil soup from Jacob instead of trading his birthright for it. He did not use his strength to get his own way. For Rachel and Leah had also taught him that love was more important than strength. But Rebecca realized that his very virtues made him unsuited to be a leader of people. It is not that she loved Esau less and Jacob more, but that she had the clear-eyed vision, which her blind husband lacked, to understand and see who her children were. Honesty and justice and fairness were not the supreme virtues. Realpolitik was more important.

But realpolitik leaves its scars. Jacob limped after the battle and would be forever wounded. Not just anywhere, but in the sinew of his thigh. Why is the portion between the hip and the knee so important? Because without your leg working, you cannot stand on your own two feet. God wrestling with Jacob touched the hollow of his thigh, tore the elastic tissue connecting the muscle to the femur and the pelvic bone as well. When that happens – as currently I know all too well – you cannot walk except in extreme pain and dependent on another for help.

But this was not only a physical handicap with which Jacob was left. Recall that when Abraham sent his servant to search out a wife for his son, Isaac, he made that servant press his hand under his thigh to prove that he would keep his word. (Genesis 24:2). Abraham’s thigh stayed in position and his servant fulfilled his pledge. Jacob’s thigh bone was displaced and his sinew torn so that he henceforth walked like a cripple in great pain. (Genesis 32:31) So God was NOT a servant who would allow Jacob to assume an enormous responsibility for his people and for the world painlessly. Like women who bear their children in pain, Jacob and his descendants would always know and always remember when they refused to eat the sinew of the thigh muscle, that assuming such a responsibility comes at great cost and pain. Jacob and humanity were now on their own in a way that they had not been before.

This did not mean that God would not help them. It only meant that they could not, that they should not, count on that help. Even Jesus had to cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” because Jesus had not learned the lesson that Jacob had, that God was not a steadfast servant at the beck and call of humans. When Jacob, now renamed Israel, was about to die, he made Joseph pledge by putting his hand under his thigh that Joseph would assume the responsibility of burying his father in the homeland rather than Egypt. (Genesis 49:29) For Jacob was to be the father of a people in a homeland and not relegated for all time to a diaspora existence.

But what of Esau, the mensch, Esau, who had loved his younger brother, who had not used his strength at the time of the porridge incident or when they met again years after their long estrangement to subdue Jacob? When his father, Isaac, had been tricked into giving the blessing he had planned to give Esau but, in the cunning of history, had given it to Jacob, Esau cried out in desperation, “Father, have you but one blessing to give?” Isaac had another. Esau would not be able to use his physical prowess to become master of the world. Esau wept, convinced that his mission in life had failed. But Isaac blessed Esau. “See your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword shall you live but you shall serve your brother.” And then the prophetic warning. “When you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27::39-40)

The cunning of history would play with Isaac’s blessing, for Isaac was a man of laughter and in tune with irony. Esau’s descendants would not enjoy the fat of the earth, but the fat under its surface. And rather than be showered from the dew from heaven, they would use that black and silken “fat” or energy to turn salt water fresh. And they would break free and come into their own, not serving the descendants of cunning and political craft, but committed to fulfilling Esau’s earthly honesty and deep love for his brother.

But that day has yet to come. The cunning of history has yet to deliver.

Jacob’s Character – Part A

And Jacob Fought the Angel – Part A

by

Howard Adelman

To repeat. the relevant verses from Chapter 32 of Genesis are:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

“And Jacob Fought the Angel” is the name of Elie Wiesel’s chapter on Jacob in his book, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends in which he deals with Jacob’s struggle. What is Wiesel’s portrait of Jacob? Wiesel places the event of wrestling with the “angel” in the context of the anticipated meeting with his long estranged brother the next day. When Jacob should have been preparing for that meeting, for Wiesel, he was in fact embarking on a radically different course. As you will see, I interpret the struggle very differently, as a proof text of his character rather than a radical departure from it.

How does Wiesel characterize the wrestling match? Silence. Absurd. Opaque. No reason is offered for why the struggle took place. Was it deliberate or accidental? Only Wiesel, without any justification, characterizes the stranger, the angel, as the assailant, as the aggressor. But how can he make such an assertion when the text is a blank? The only words uttered by the stranger at dawn are, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.”

Wiesel characterizes Jacob’s response as belligerent. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob set conditions. That is uncontroversial. Wiesel also inserts the claim that the angel demurred. Certainly, the angel did not offer a blessing right off the bat. But then Wiesel adds another action not in the text: “they clutched each other once more.” I assume that what Wiesel means to say is that they continued to grapple with and hold onto one another. (See Karen Schmidt’s sculpture, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”) Jacob did not let go and then grab the angel once again. Further, Wiesel wrote that, after the awesome fight, “in the end they had to give up, neither being able to proclaim victory.” But the clear and unambiguous text reads that the angel conceded that Jacob had prevailed. The “angel” had to give up when Jacob would not. This may not mean victory. It could mean simply that Jacob won because he was willing and able to continue the fight, but after dawn, the angel was not willing to do so. There is no explanation for this unwillingness except that it had to do with the dawning of a new day. Was it the angel of death and darkness that had visited Jacob and Jacob prevailed simply by surviving the battle?

Wiesel claims that Jacob was not the only one injured. So was the angel, but not physically. His sense of self and morale were injured. Again, there is nothing in the text suggesting such a result, but Elie Wiesel’s interpretation entails reading into the blanks and filling out the narrative sketch. Wiesel writes that the two parted friends or at least accomplices. Jacob let the angel go (again called the aggressor by Wiesel) and the angel responded by giving Jacob a new name – Israel. Though there is controversy about the meaning of the name, it is generally taken to mean “he who prevails with God.” “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Who was the man with whom Jacob fought? For he is named as a man, as “ish”? Was he just a stranger, any stranger, a human-all-too-human? Or was he a messenger of God, an angel? Or was he God Himself as Jacob appeared to declare? Was he Jacob’s imaginary construct of the battle he expected in meeting up with his brother? Or was he really struggling with himself projected as another? When Jacob asked the stranger who he was, the answer was not forthcoming. Perhaps no answer could be offered because part of the struggle entails determining who Jacob’s opponent was in the short tale.

Then there is the problem of the new name. What was wrong with the old one? Why that new one? And why does Jacob continue to be called Jacob and not Israel after the battle? When Abram becomes Abraham, the old name disappears. Jacob keeps both his old and his new name. Wiesel says about this that it is not just a puzzle but unlike the previous questions, with this renaming we are left in total darkness. We do not know who Jacob’s opponent was, why they engaged in a personal struggle or why the outcome was the renaming of Jacob. An enigma within a larger puzzle!

Wiesel then reviews Jacob’s character as it has been revealed in his life narrative up until this point. “Jacob is the least interesting [of the patriarchs] up to this point.” Interesting! His life lacked greatness until this point. His problems were interpersonal and did not rise to a larger-than-life level. Abraham had been a pioneer. Isaac had been an inspired poet. Both had charisma whereas Jacob was an introvert, shy, easily manipulated, fearful, a mediocrity at best even as he accumulated wives, concubines, children and wealth on a far larger scale than either Abraham or Isaac. He was like a very rich man whom adventurers and artists demean, not to mention intellectuals. There is no puzzle about why Isaac preferred his brother Esau. He had neither majesty nor a sense of real tragedy. Nothing controversial in any of this.

Then the surprise. “The portrait as drawn in the Bible – before Peniel – is striking in its pallor. It depicts a man straightforward but unimaginative, honest, but anxious to avoid risks. An introverted, frustrated man given to fits of temper, leading a marginal life. A weakling, manipulated by others. Everyone made him do things – and he obeyed. Such was his nature. Incapable of initiative, he could never make up his mind. His mother – Rebecca – gave him the idea of disguising himself as Esau…He cried but he obeyed. And it was Rebecca who, once the act was played, advised him to go away for awhile, to take refuge with his uncle Laban, and again, it was she who gave him his instructions for the journey, including whom not to marry. Naturally [why naturally???], he promptly fell in love with the first girl he met – Rachel – and blushing like a shy adolescent, wanted to marry her on the spot. Yet somehow he ended up marrying her sister. Doubly unhappy, he loved someone he could not marry and was loved by someone he had married without love. He did not complain about it, not too much.”

Some of this is recognizable. An innocent abroad, manipulated and manipulatable. But guileless? After how he dealt with Laban? But Wiesel’s response might be that the affair with the streaked, the spotted and the mottled sheep was God’s idea, not Jacob’s. But where is the evidence to say he was unimaginative? Is this not a Nobel-Prize-winning writer’s condescension? And, most of all, why honest? Is Wiesel suggesting that Jacob was just a tabula rasa corrupted by others? But surely even one who abets a fraud, let alone is the instrument for perpetrating it, is neither honest nor innocent.

Further, Jacob could not be compared to Lot, generally considered the epitome of the average man. There is no indication that Jacob, though an acquisitor on a grand scale, had a taste for luxury, comfort or pleasure as Lot did. And if Lot is the closest comparable, why does Jacob forgo what seemed to be Lot’s greatest virtue – his hospitality, his sense of decency when he met strangers? Lot invited them in to share his food. Jacob fought with the stranger. Lot was courageous, willing to risk himself to protect his entourage. Jacob held back behind the lines with half his troops when Esau approached with 400 men. If Lot was redeemed by his courage, his indecisiveness, his faint-hearted character, his angst, why would Jacob, who is reborn as Israel, remain risk-averse and reliant on Plan B if Plan A failed?

Look at Jacob compared to Abraham, a coward if there ever was one, saying his beautiful wife was his sister lest he be killed by the nobility he encountered. Instead, he delivered Sarah up, not once but twice. And look at his own father, who played the same game with Abimelach, king of the Philistines. Talk about someone who obeys blindly! Abraham was willing to sacrifice his long-wished-for son simply because God told him to do so. Kierkegaard may have celebrated this act as a profound expression of faith, but I read the story as an expression of Abraham’s supine character that makes Jacob comparatively look like a warrior. And Kierkegaard himself, unlike Jacob, was a coward of the worst order, an ugly man offered the most beautiful woman in Denmark who then breaks his engagement and confesses, “Had I faith, I would have married Regina.” Jacob, unlike Kierkegaard, was not a faithless man, but one who, once he declared his love, was determined to see it through whatever it took. And this is key!

Let’s go back. Who are the main characters in this brief drama? There is Jacob. It is important to get his character right at this point if we are to understand what is going on. Compare Jacob with his father, Isaac. He was not a little child when Abraham took him up the mountain to be sacrificed. He carried the wood for the fire. And he was not an innocent abroad. He had to know what it was all about. He asked where was the animal to be sacrificed. And it is Isaac who in his old age is so easily tricked that rabbinical commentators will twist and turn and go to great lengths to insist he had to be in on the gimmick. But Isaac was the archetypal naïve, passive and submissive son. Jacob was the wily one, determined not to be like his father, but also not to follow in the footsteps of his brother who was the exemplar of a strong warrior son. Jacob was a romantic.

Look at how Isaac gained a wife. A servant did all the work for him in advance. Jacob fell for Rachel when he saw her. It was love at first sight – in contrast to Wiesel’s scepticism about such a process. That was simply the foolish infatuation of a young inexperienced man, according to Wiesel. But if so, why did Jacob love Rachel his whole life? He had another wife. He had two concubines. Rachel took the longest time to conceive. But he loved her without qualification. His love was unstinting. And unlike his father, he never paid a bride price. He worked to gain what he loved. Why does Wiesel ignore this magnificent trait of Jacob’s?

Let us review Jacob’s life and character and spot where Wiesel makes some outlandish claims. Like Sarah before her, Isaac had to plea with Elohim so that Rebecca could conceive. Indeed, she had twins. And the Lord said, “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other. And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) Before we know anything about each child’s character, we know their destinies. Each shall father a different nation. Jacob’s children, unlike the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will remain united, one out of many. Though it is often interpreted that the nation founded by Jacob will be the mightier, I think the test tells us the opposite. It is Esau’s nation that will be the mightier in the double sense – it will be much larger, much stronger, but also in the sense that it will be ruled, not by law, no matter how much law will be integral to its success, but by the principle that might is right.

But the nation of Esau will serve the nation of Jacob. In what sense? This is the real mystery of that story. How will the weaker and far less numerous of the two peoples be a ruler over the other? Why will might serve what issues from Jacob? Jacob is indeed, as Wiesel portrayed him, an introvert, a mild-mannered male, a mother’s boy rather than a sports-loving outdoorsman. TheNadvantage there is the first exchange between them. And it is an exchange. And it is not one initiated by his mother. When Esau came in from the outdoors and Jacob was cooking a stew (a male cooking stew!!!) and asked for some because he was famished, Jacob said, “Sure, but trade me your birthright for the stew.”

There is guile. There is initiative. You are desperate. I will take advantage of your desperation. Further, he does not ask in exchange for a bowl of stew the gift of the next animal that Esau slays. Jacob asks for Esau’s birthright. What is a birthright, a bekhorah, in the Torah? It is what is due to the firstborn. For Jacob, though a twin, was born clinging to the heel of Esau. Instead of the double inheritance, Esau was being asked to give up half of his inheritance and transfer it to Jacob. What chutzpah to ask for such an exchange in return only for a bowl of lentil stew and a small loaf of bread! But a birthright implies more than a material inheritance. It implies a right to become the spiritual leader of a people, Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, was bestowed that honour even though it was later transferred by God to the children of Levi.

Does this suggest that Jacob was only a passive manipulated character? He was calculating but not tricky. He did not trick Esau into giving up his birthright. He just revealed that Esau with his impetuosity, with his focus on the immediate rather than the long game, was incapable of founding a nation based on the rule of law, the foundation of which was a tort or contract, a willing exchange made between two mature individuals. Already, Jacob revealed he was a keen reader of another’s character. As I indicated in an earlier blog, this is not only a story of the second-born displacing the first-born as the spiritual head of a people, but the character of the second-born intended to rule over the first-born, for civilians to rule over warriors, for intellect and careful and calculated thought to rule over the impetuous, for diplomacy to rule over the resort to war whenever possible. That is also the meaning of the encounter between Jacob and Esau when they come together after twenty years of estrangement.

Look at Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s interpretation. (Gunther, who witnessed my marriage to my wife in exchange for my helping him on his report on refugees, was the editor of the Torah and commentary used worldwide by Reform congregations.) He found Jacob’s actions in this case to be morally reprehensible. I did not. Machiavellianism is integral to political success. In myself, I found I was inadequate to such a task. Not because I was not a good bargainer, but because I could not make the bargain that would so benefit my self and the future look trivial. To be Machiavellian requires that one be such a magician that the observers do not even know you are playing a trick. Jacob was already shown to be brilliant in this way even when he was quite young.

Then comes the story of Jacob’s tricking his father out of the blessing intended for Esau, coached in doing so by his own mother, Rebecca, and obedient in spite of his reluctance, not because of the trickery, but by the fear of being caught by so simple and clumsy a ruse as wearing an animal skin to seem hairy to his blind father. Rebecca urges him on. “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them [two lambs] for me,” so that I can prepare a tasty dish that your father loves. And anyone who loves bagels as much as I do does not find it hard to understand why Isaac fell for the trick. Set aside your doubts. Just eat the bagel you were offered.

So what becomes of this mediocrity that Wiesel tries to put forth as an accurate description of Jacob’s character? It evaporates into a mist. It isn’t his adventure at Mount Peniel that makes Jacob. It is who he is that allows him to prevail at Mount Peniel. He doesn’t gain majesty there; he is already majestic. The only question is why when on the surface he appears to be so ordinary.

That revelation comes in the story of his marriages to Leah and Rachel. There is character. There is to be found wisdom. There is to be found decisiveness and commitment. And it will not be based on a cold calculation, but on true love for another. The core of the story of Jacob is his romance with Rachel, his refusal to set aside her older sister Leah even though he was tricked into marrying her, and, most of all, precisely his surrender to the will of women rather than the will of man. Jacob was a mother’s boy. That is his great virtue. He did allow Rachel and Leah to work out between them who would sleep with him each night, one of them or one of the concubines. But nothing, absolutely nothing, diminished his love and commitment to Rachel. This did not make him an infatuated nebbish as Wiesel suggests, but made him worthy of becoming the father of a great nation, the nation of Israel and deserving of the name, Israel.

Jacob was steadfast in his love, but always recognized that it was women who would, and should, determine the future. It was women who laboured in childbirth and were the initiators of what would be, not simply of what could be made through technological progress. Though women certainly have proved to be just as capable in that realm. But it is because of the pact between Leah and Rachel that Jacob’s sons stayed together as one nation. Isaac’s sons never did so, Abraham’s sons certainly failed to do so. Only Jacob had the wisdom and foresight to understand where real power is to be found. It is in family. It is the ones who hold the family together.

So who is the stranger with whom Jacob wrestled?

To Be Continued