By Alan Orchover
“And Jacob went out from Beersheba and went towards Haran” (Gen. 28:10). The rabbis asked, why does the text state that Jacob left Beersheba when we already know this fact from the previous parashah?
The reason, they said, was that the departure of an upright person from any place diminishes that place’s worthiness, and his absence would sadden the inhabitants. But was Jacob so upright? All we know is that he has fled from his father’s house after deceiving him into giving him Esau’s birthright and blessing (with the connivance of his mother, Rebecca). So where is he so honourable and what acts of merit can be accorded him?
The stories of the forefathers now attach to Jacob, the third patriarch, and it is with his destiny that we shall be concerned, not with that of his brother, Esau. Except for the story of Joseph and, to some extent, Judah, Jacob will dominate the remainder of the book of Bereshit. Does he become such an admirable person? This is not borne out by the text. He does develop, but his motives are often suspect and not always praiseworthy. Even after his dream of the ladder and the angels at Bethel, although he is overawed by his experience, he bargains with God: if God performs properly – and performs first – and brings him back safely to his father’s house, then Jacob will accept Him and be faithful. Many find this a highly objectionable way of dealing with the Almighty, especially since Jacob is shown doubting God’s word.
Rabbi Jonathan, an ancient commentator, so despaired of explaining Jacob’s words that he concluded that the text must somehow be in disarray.
Bereshit is often called the “Book of Deception” and, from now on, everyone is either a deceiver or deceived. Jacob has set the “template”, but he will be deceived by Laban, his future father-in-law, and by his children. He will marry two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and produce the dynasty that becomes the Children of Israel. (In fact, the marriage of two sisters simultaneously is forbidden by the Torah. So much for Rashi’s conceit of the Avot keeping the Torah even before it was given.) Yet Jacob’s decisions will often result in outcomes that he does not anticipate or desire, and he will suffer considerably. His life, as he will eventually tell Pharaoh in Egypt, will be “short but evil” – hardly an expression of deep faith!
Some commentators see Jacob’s destiny as a paradigm for the fate of the Jewish people – destined to be divinely chosen but tempestuous and uneven. Jacob, therefore, will have an unhappy relationship with his family, partly created by his having favourites, and he will become an unwilling victim of events.
How can we reconcile the choice of Jacob as the third patriarch when his life is not exactly an example to be followed? His shortcomings of personality make it difficult to accept him as a great man, but maybe his having feet of clay makes him a more understandable and realistic person.
Alan Orchover is a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue.