Given the deceitfulness of Jacob in his dealings with Esau and Isaac, how is it that he became a patriarch and his name synonymous with Israel?
In other words, why should a person who acts in less than an exemplary manner be revered as one of the patriarchs?
1.Jacob was appointed Patriarch by the Word of God. As such it's axiomatic regardless of any [perceived] character flaws
2.The Power of Forgiveness. Whatever Jacob's Flaws originally were, they were eventually forgiven.
3.Jacob in reality usurped nothing. It was only Esau's allegation that Jacob was a usurper, but that it not [necessarily] the Torah's own perception
i)Jacob's designation as Patriarch is ubiquitous throughout Tanach and is quite emphatically stated and repeated in Parshat Sh'mot [Exodus 3] at the "burning bush."Thus the Booming Voice of G-d HIMSELF chose Jacob, not us
ii)Everyone Eventually Forgave Jacob - Thus any wrong Jacob had committed had been righted.
(1)That Rebecca was OK with Jacob's actions seems obvious
(2)That Isaac was eventually OK with Jacob's actions is evident during the 2nd blessing in Toldoth freely bequeathed by Isaac. [Genesis 28:1-4]
(3)That G-d was OK is evident with the man/angel who wrestled with Jacob and changed his name from Jacob [grasper] to Israel.
(4)That Esau himself eventually became reconciled is obvious from his Hug and Kiss of Jacob.
One way to look at the matter of Jacob’s conduct in Genesis is this: that Providence desired the succession of Jacob, rather than Esau, in the heritage – or the designation -- of the Patriarchs Abraham and Isaac. Hence, Jacob began life by holding Esau’s very heel at the birth of the twins, giving us the name Yaakov, where ”heel” is seen in the root,akov. This destiny involved him in just two events, where the questioner suggests that Yaakov was less than honest.
The first is the acquisition of the birthright of Esau, the firstborn. The narrative tells us that Esau returned home from “out on the hunt,” exhausted and famished, and saw that Jacob was preparing a soup of lentils. Esau asked Jacob that he be given to swallow this red cooked dish. Jacob, in feeling more entitled to the birthright than Esau, saw his opportunity. “Sell me your birthright now,” said Jacob. Said Esau, “I am about to die, and what do I want with a birthright?“ So the exchange was made, after which Esau is described as “eating, drinking, getting up and walking away. And Esau disdained the birthright.” (Genesis 25:24-34).
Jacob’s evaluation of the place and function of a first-born was real to him in his Providential outlook and in Jacob’s conviction throughout. (Dr. Aaron Levine, professor of Economics at Yeshiva University, spelled out how this exchange between the brothers was not a coerced transaction and thus unfair, but fair and proper under these circumstances.) Our second event, then, was prevailed upon Jacob not from himself but from Mother Rebecca. She shared in the value and primacy of succession by Jacob, and saw that the Blessing thus belongs to this son and not the other. In this event, Jacob cooperated in bringing about this conferral of heritage, though not by initiating it.
Jacob was obedient to his mother, and the rabbinic teachers in the Midrash saw him free from slander and faithful to other good traits. He then acquired the name Israel for more than his status of Patriarch, but for his struggle to “strive with G-d and with Men and prevailed. “ (Genesis 32:29)
Rabbinic Midrash spends a great deal of space trying to defend Jacob and to show that his actions were either not deceitful or were necessary because of how evil Esau was. Some Midrash suggests that Isaac knew all along that it was Jacob but wanted what we would, today, call “plausible deniability” because he was scared of Esau.Others suggest that Esau had duped Isaac into thinking that Esau was something he was not, therefore Jacob had no choice but to go along with his mother’s plan.
These are nice, but they don’t eliminate the fact that the text in this instance and in others, Jacob is portrayed as a bit of a shrewd and sly dealer.Therefore the question is a good one, how can we possibly have him as our ancestor and namesake?
The answer lies not in traditional text, but in a modern, Jewish, reading of the text.Judaism has always accepted the fact that sin, i.e. falling short of God’s ideals, is a part of life, therefore it provided many avenues for repentance both during the time of the Temple and afterward.The ancient sages were ok with this, and we can be too, even when the standard is applied to our revered ancestors.
The story of Jacob that makes him a worthy namesake for the Jewish people is not one of perfect piety and faithfulness, but it is one of struggle.This struggle of Jacob’s is shown in a very literal way in his wrestling match with the angel, but that scene is a symbol for his life-long struggle with his inner demons and with his life circumstances (fleeing his home out of fear, having to work twice as long for the woman he love, fleeing from her father, losing his beloved wife en-route, losing – so he thought – the first born of that wife).
Jacob sees his family come back together, not necessarily through his own agency, but he is clearly a changed man at the end.It is this struggle, this change that he undergoes through his entire life that makes his name, Israel, worthy of being one that is passed down.A perfect individual would have been too much for his descendants to live up to, but someone who has gone through the same struggles and challenges of an imperfect life and comes through it all a better person – that is a legacy we could all be proud to strive toward.
Answered by: Rabbi Daniel Plotkin
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