In this week’s Torah portion we find brothers Jacob and Esau reuniting after years of estrangement. As you may recall, years earlier, Jacob, the younger of the two brothers, tricked his brother Esau into exchanging the birthright, a larger portion of the family inheritance, for a bowl of porridge. Later, as if to add insult to injury, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into offering the blessing intended for the first-born Esau to him. Esau becomes enraged and Jacob, fearing for his life, runs away.
Now, years later, the brothers prepare to finally see one another again. As Rabbi Brad Shavit Artson observes,
“According to both biblical and rabbinic accounts, Esau was a wicked man-impulsive, immoral, violent, and ignorant. Jacob, to the contrary, is esteemed as the ancestor of the entire Jewish people, a role model for moral development and the acquisition of wisdom.”
I read this and wondered how the rabbis of old could have said such a thing. Wasn’t Esau the victim of Jacob’s unscrupulousness? Yes, he was impulsive and ignorant. Why else would he have traded his legacy for a single meal?
But it was Jacob who tricked him and set the events leading to their estrangement in motion.
It was Jacob who saw his brother return from hunting weakened because he had not eaten in quite some time.
It was Jacob who took advantage of this weakened state to trick him into exchanging his family legacy for some food.
And it was Jacob who tricked his elderly blind father Isaac into giving him, rather than Esau, the blessing of the first born.
How then could the rabbis of old describe Jacob as “esteemed” and “a role model for moral development and the acquisition of wisdom”? What is moral about preying on a sibling’s vulnerabilities? What wisdom is to be found in someone who would lie to his dying father in order to gain money and power that rightly belongs to his brother?
The great commentator Rashi offers one possible explanation. Rather than looking at Jacob and Esau’s behavior, Rashi explores the meaning behind their names. He notes that the name Jacob “means a man who comes as a lurker and a trickster.”
But, Rashi observes, after his nighttime encounter with a divine being while sleeping in the wilderness, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. This new name reflects Jacob’s struggle with God and elevates his status to that of a “prince” or a “chief.”
In other words, while Jacob was an unscrupulous individual in his youth, his time alone in the wilderness transformed him. His new name reflected this change. But this only happened AFTER he struggled during the night. And it is that struggle that holds the key to his transformation.
Young Jacob focused on gaining advantage over others and winning. In the womb he grabbed Esau’s heel and attempted to hold him back so that he himself would be the first born. As a youth he preyed on Esau’s weakness to gain the advantage he was unable to capture in the womb. And, later still, he used his father’s blindness as the opportunity to complete the process of stealing the birthright that rightfully belonged to Esau. Young Jacob saw everyone else as his competition.
In the wilderness, however, we see a changed man. Artson observes,
“In his prime, Jacob learns to listen to the world, learns that not all efforts can be crowned with success. By wrestling with the angel and learning to be satisfied merely with holding on (rather than with a clear victory), Jacob learns the wisdom of patience and modesty, he acquires the ability to put God at the center and to surrender the doomed need to control everyone and everything. At the end of that transforming moment, the angel acknowledges Jacob’s new, more mature nature by bestowing on him the new name Israel.”
Thus, when Jacob and Esau finally reunite, Esau finds that his brother has changed. He is no longer the self-centered, narcissistic, conniving person Esau knew years earlier. His struggles as he wandered alone in the wilderness have changed him into someone deserving of his place as one of our patriarchs.
And perhaps that is the point. The rabbis are able to describe Jacob/Israel in celebrated terms only because they view him through the lens of who he became rather than who he was. They do not hold his earlier transgressions against him. The unscrupulousness of his youth is not forgotten—after all, it is right there in the text of the Torah—but he is not judged by his earlier transgressions.
Ultimately, by celebrating Jacob as one of our patriarchs we are reminded that Jewish tradition does not judge someone by their youthful indiscretions or worst moments.
Like Jacob, we all make mistakes. Like Jacob, we all do or say things we later regret. But, like Jacob, we have the potential to learn and grow.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen