From Yaakov To Yisrael (Part 2): Life On The Run

Where Were We? Review Of Part 1

The Torah introduced us to Yaakov’s character through three anecdotes:

  1. His peculiar birth.
  2. An explicit description of his personality — “Ish Tam.”
  3. The story of Esav verbally transferring his birthright to Yaakov.

The contrast of Esav and Yaakov’s characters builds the framework through which we will understand Yaakov’s personality. Esav overcomes Yaakov and emerges first (Rashi and the Yalkut Shemoni cite a Midrash that says Esav and Yaakov fought each other in the womb), while Yaakov emerges feebly grasping his heel. Esav is a man of the field — Ish Sadeh — while Yaakov is the more subdued Ish Tam (not necessarily a bad thing. See From Yaakov to Yisrael, Part 1 for explanation). Finally, Esav acts on impulse while Yaakov acts on cunning. We will see that Yaakov resorts to cunning and trickery more than once as a means of avoiding confrontation.

The Torah’s introduction to Yaakov’s character is repeatedly contrasted with that of Esav in order to stress the two extremes they represent: Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh. These traits will be a recurring theme in Yaakov’s life as he struggles to access the quality of Ish Sadeh. On that note, we proceed with Yaakov’s story.

Tracing Yaakov’s Traits In His Life Stories

Following this introduction, the Torah proceeds to impart four major stories (as opposed to the three anecdotal, introductory stories in perek 25) from the life of Yaakov, each of which will follow the same pattern: An antagonist will rise against Yaakov and Yaakov will react with non-confrontation and passivity. Our intention is to see that these stories are not isolated or random, but rather are part of a larger picture the Torah is creating. The patterns and interconnection of these stories will explain otherwise cryptic events that follow, such as Yaakov’s struggle with the angel and the strange births of Peretz and Zerach. But more on that later.

Story #1: Stealing The Bracha

After introducing Yaakov (and Esav) in 25:24-34, the Torah spends a perek focusing on Yitzchak before returning to Yaakov in perek 27. Perek 27 tells the famous story of Yaakov’s deception of Yitzchak and seizing of the bracha intended for Esav.

The story begins with Yitzchak informing Esav that the time had come for Esav to receive his blessing (27:1-4). Overhearing that conversation, Rivka hatches a plan to ensure that Yaakov, not Esav, receives the bracha of the eldest. Her assisting Yaakov is unsurprising considering Yaakov is both her most beloved son (25:28) and the son she prophetically knows to be worthy of the bracha (25:23).

Thus, in 25:5-17, Rivka proposes a plan and convinces Yaakov to deceive Yitzchak, his father, by posing as Esav. Was convincing Yaakov to betray his father and brother, Yitzchak and Esav, difficult? Based on a close reading of Yaakov’s response, seemingly not.

Bereishit 27:11-14:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק׃ אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה וְלֹא בְרָכָה׃ וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְלֵךְ קַח־לִי׃ וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיִּקַּח וַיָּבֵא לְאִמּוֹ וַתַּעַשׂ אִמּוֹ מַטְעַמִּים כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהֵב אָבִיו׃

“Jacob replied to Rebecca, his mother, ‘But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am a smooth-skinned man. Perhaps my father will feel me and I shall be as a mocker in his eyes; I will thus bring upon myself a curse rather than a blessing.’ But his mother said to him, ‘Your curse be on me, my son; only heed my voice and go fetch them for me.’ So he went, fetched, and brought to his mother, and his mother made delicacies that as his father loved.”

It is implicit from Yaakov’s response that he agrees with his mother that he, Yaakov, should in fact steal the bracha. After all, the concerns Yaakov raises are only technical — he fears being caught and he fears the blessing acting as a curse. So long as the bracha will operate in his favor, Yaakov is on board. Thus, when Rivka states that, should it act as such, she would incur the curse on his behalf, Yaakov goes along with his mother’s plan and steals the bracha. In 27:30-42 Esav discovers what Yaakov has done and fosters hatred toward him, going as far as threatening to kill him (27:41). Yaakov complies with advice given to him by his mother and flees from Esav, heading toward the house of his uncle, Lavan (27:42-45).

Relating The Story To Developing Themes

The story of the stolen bracha is the first major story in which Yaakov’s tendencies, as expressed by his introduction, take form. When faced with Esav, in his eyes an unworthy recipient of the bracha, Yaakov:

  1. Does not act on his own conviction, but rather needs facilitation and prompting from Rivka to take action.
  2. Resorts to trickery.
  3. Flees from his antagonist.

Yaakov’s tentative and timid approach throughout this episode clearly displays his trait of Ish Tam.

This is the first of four stories that will reveal Yaakov’s inability to access the assertive quality perhaps best expressed as Ish Sadeh (Esav’s trait). The next stories will even show God’s own hand in pushing Yaakov to develop the ability to push back against his abusers.

Story #2: Life With Lavan

[While perek 28 tells the famous story of Yaakov’s dream in Beit El, this story is peripheral to our study in that it does not include Yaakov’s interaction with people or antagonists (therefore it does not contribute to our study of Yaakov as Ish TamIsh Tam is primarily an interpersonal characteristic) and so we continue with perek 29.]

Perakim 29-31 cover the next story in Yaakov’s life, the second of the four we will study: Yaakov’s time in the house of Lavan. Yaakov’s visit to his uncle builds upon the same theme of passivity in Yaakov’s life as he struggles to summon the strength to confront, or even run from Lavan.

Lavan: Yaakov’s New Antagonist

Lavan establishes himself as an antagonist to Yaakov almost immediately. In 29:18-28 Lavan deceives Yaakov by giving him Leah in place of Rachel to be his wife. Yaakov’s response? He bears the blow, keeps his head down, and proceeds to work another seven years for Rachel. Furthermore, Lavan abused Yaakov in many additional ways, as Yaakov himself recounts later on.

Bereishit 31:38-41:

זֶה עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ רְחֵלֶיךָ וְעִזֶּיךָ לֹא שִׁכֵּלוּ וְאֵילֵי צֹאנְךָ לֹא אָכָלְתִּי׃ טְרֵפָה לֹא־הֵבֵאתִי אֵלֶיךָ אָנֹכִי אֲחַטֶּנָּה מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנָּה גְּנֻבְתִי יוֹם וּגְנֻבְתִי לָיְלָה׃ הָיִיתִי בַיּוֹם אֲכָלַנִי חֹרֶב וְקֶרַח בַּלָּיְלָה וַתִּדַּד שְׁנָתִי מֵעֵינָי׃ זֶה־לִּי עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה בְּבֵיתֶךָ עֲבַדְתִּיךָ אַרְבַּע־עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה בִּשְׁתֵּי בְנֹתֶיךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים בְּצֹאנֶךָ וַתַּחֲלֵף אֶת־מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּי עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים׃

“These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I eat rams of your flock. That which was mangled I never brought you – I myself would bear the loss, from me you would exact it, whether it was stolen by day or stolen by night. This is how I was; by day scorching heat consumed me, and frost by night; my sleep drifted from my eyes. This is my twenty years in your household; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wage a hundred times.”

Despite this list of grievances, (earlier) in 30:25-34, when Yaakov desired to leave following the birth of Yosef (many opinions exist as to why Yosef’s birth inspired Yaakov to leave), Lavan was still able to coerce Yaakov to stay.

Eventually Yaakov does make the decision to flee from Lavan, however, a close reading of this decision reveals an important detail.

What Prompted Yaakov To Finally Leave?

Bereishit 31:1-3:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת־דִּבְרֵי בְנֵי־לָבָן לֵאמֹר לָקַח יַעֲקֹב אֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ וּמֵאֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ עָשָׂה אֵת כָּל־הַכָּבֹד הַזֶּה׃ וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב אֶת־פְּנֵי לָבָן וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ עִמּוֹ כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל־יַעֲקֹב שׁוּב אֶל־אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ וְאֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ׃

“Then he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, ‘Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from that which belonged to our father he amassed all his wealth.’ Jacob also noticed Laban’s disposition that, behold, was not toward him as in earlier days. And Hashem said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your native land, and I will be with you.’”

Yaakov did not leave of his own volition, rather God told him to leave. The Midrash corroborates this, saying, “Your father in-law is not showing a hospitable disposition toward you as in earlier days and yet you continue to settle here?” Because Yaakov lacks the gumption to stand up to Lavan, Yaakov requires God’s instruction to leave the house of Lavan. Based on God’s intervention in the matter it is clear that Yaakov would not have left on his own (at least not at that time).

Recognizing Patterns

Note the pattern developing in Yaakov’s behavior: Just as Yaakov required Rivka to motivate his action earlier, here it is only upon God’s instruction that Yaakov acts. He does not come to act on his own; rather, Yaakov requires a nudge before proceeding to act.

After receiving this instruction, Yaakov does choose to leave and he does so by characteristically running away.

Bereishit 31:20:

וַיִּגְנֹב יַעֲקֹב אֶת־לֵב לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי עַל־בְּלִי הִגִּיד לוֹ כִּי בֹרֵחַ הוּא׃

“Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing.”

Note that God’s instruction did not include the method by which Yaakov should depart; He did not tell Yaakov to flee. God said, “return” and seemingly Yaakov elected to flee, consistent with his having fled from Esav (granted, that was Rivka’s suggestion, however, from its repetition in Yaakov’s stories — and there will be more in the future — we see that fleeing is Yaakov’s own alternative to confrontation).

In 31:36-42, after Lavan pursues Yaakov and raids his tents, Yaakov finally does stand up for himself (31:38-42, quoted above), however, this confrontation is too little too late. Yaakov has already suffered the consequences of Lavan’s abuse, and his complaints only come after he has left Lavan’s house, which God instructed. Yaakov did not speak up during his time in Lavan’s house, but rather waited until after-the-fact. Ultimately, Lavan concedes and backs off for the sake of his daughters (31:43-44).

Relating The Story To Developing Themes

The story of Yaakov’s time with Lavan continues to build upon the themes the Torah previously presented us with. The Torah began by contrasting Yaakov and Esav, establishing Yaakov as an Ish Tam. Through stories from Yaakov’s life, the Torah highlights the need for the balance of timidity and assertiveness, a balance Yaakov struggles to strike.

This theme began with the births of Yaakov and Esav, describing Yaakov as one who merely “grasps the heel.” It is corroborated by the contrast of Yaakov and Esav’s personalities — Ish Tam vs. Ish Sadeh, and now these first two major stories — the stolen bracha and house of Lavan — each display Yaakov’s inclination to remain passive in the face of adversity. The following story — Yaakov’s fight with the “angel of Esav” — will confirm the importance of this theme within Yaakov’s personal development as the leader of a budding nation. In the following section of our study we will see that God sends the angel with a message for Yaakov: Stop running.

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