Introduction To Our Study
In order to engage in comprehensive Torah study we must first establish our methodology and intention. The Torah is a book of prophesies composed perfectly by God, and it therefore wastes no words and was conceived through Divine wisdom. As a book of prophecy, the Torah’s goal is to deliver the message of God1, though at times its messages are cryptic and challenging.
The Torah can be divided into two broad, but distinct, stylistic methods through which it delivers its prophetic message (of course, just one of many possible distinctions):
- Divine commandments and instructions.
- Selected tales from our forefathers.
While there is endless depth to explore, the portions of the Torah that are written in the style of the former are often relatively straightforward and easily understood. However, by virtue of their subtlety, the latter style — the story-based portions of the Torah — challenges its readers to further explore and analyze their message and purpose.
The prophetic messages and lessons of this latter style are embedded within stories and told through themes and characters. Literary devices such as contrast, symbolism, and both the development of themes and characters are just a few of the many crucial mediums masterfully woven throughout the story-based portions of the Torah. It is with the help of these mediums that we can gain a full appreciation for the Torah, its depth and its wisdom.
With this in mind we embark on a journey; a study of one of the Torah’s most prolific characters: our forefather, Yaakov. As we will see, Yaakov’s time in the Torah’s spotlight is packed with powerful themes and important lessons. It is therefore incumbent upon us as students of the Torah to carefully study Yaakov’s progression and to identify the messages and lessons his character is meant to teach. Here we will do so through a five-part study, this document being the first of said five.
The focus of this study will be Yaakov’s thematic struggle to reconcile his instinctually passive nature with the more assertive behavior that his contexts often call for. It is important to bear in mind that the study of Yaakov’s character is not meant to expose wrongdoings or “flaws” in Yaakov’s character and behavior. Rather, this study intends to understand Yaakov — his personality and his tendencies — as the Torah presents them to us. This perspective will allow us to best understand the necessary and essential transition from “Yaakov” to “Yisrael,” the namesake of the Jewish nation.
Yaakov To Yisrael
Ultimately, the focus of Yaakov’s character development is his transition from “Yaakov” to “Yisrael.” These two names represent respective character traits — different behaviors and attitudes. As we shall see, this change of names is representative of the refinement of Yaakov’s character as he evolves into Yisrael. Of course, it is for Yisrael — not Yaakov — that the Jewish people are eventually named “Bnei Yisrael.” (We will later discuss in-depth the respective traits of Yaakov and Yisrael.)
Yaakov & Esav: Contrasted From Birth
From the very outset of Yaakov’s existence, his character is contrasted with that of Esav. It is seldom that the Torah records details regarding the birthing process of its characters as it does by the births of Yaakov and Esav, thereby hinting toward its significance. The birth process occurs in Bereishit 25:24-26:
“When her term to bear grew full, then behold! There were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, entirely like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. After that his brother emerged with his hand grasping on to the heel of Esau; so he called his name Jacob; Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.”
The immediate contrast presented at their birth will prove to be symbolic of the relationships they will develop with each other, as well as with others, throughout their lives. As the above excerpt notes, Yaakov receives his name in light of his “grasping onto the heel of Esau.” The Torah’s introduction of Yaakov in this vein — as one who merely grasps the ankle — will serve as a still-framed, paradigmatic image of Yaakov’s character. We will see how Yaakov’s relegation to grasping Esav’s heel represents a passive, submissive trait that will follow him throughout his life.
Introducing & Developing Yaakov, the “Ish Tam”
This paradigm — the image of Yaakov grabbing Esav’s heel — is preemptively developed by 25:22, just prior to the births of Yaakov and Esav:
“The children agitated within her, and she said, ‘If so, why am I thus?’ And she went to inquire of Hashem.”
Rashi and the Yalkut Shemoni each cite the same Midrash that expounds upon the words “The children agitated within her: “…[they were] struggling and fighting over the inheritance of two worlds, [this world and the world to come].” Here the Midrash elaborates regarding Yaakov’s birth, painting a picture in which Esav has overcome Yaakov, while Yaakov is relegated to submissively pulling on the ankle of Esav.
Subsequent to their births the Torah applies descriptions to the image of Yaakov and Esav painted by the story of their births. The Torah rarely gives explicit mention to the personalities of its characters, yet in the very next pasuk the Torah does just that:
“The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents.”
Esav develops into a man of physical prowess who spends his time in the field. Contrarily, Yaakov becomes a wholesome individual, or an “Ish Tam,” of a more subdued nature than Esav. Yaakov’s inclination was to spend his time in the comfort and safety of his tent. Immediately after establishing the Yaakov-Esav paradigm with their births, the Torah follows with how that paradigm manifested itself in their young personalities. “Ish Tam” and “Ish Sadeh,” the descriptions used in 25:27, are important terminologies we will employ throughout our study as labels for these distinct personalities.
Following this introduction to each of their personalities, a third development of Yaakov and Esav’s character shows these personalities in action.
“Jacob simmered a stew, and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff for I am, exhausted.’ (He therefore called his name Edom.) Jacob said, ‘sell, as this day, your birthright to me.’ And Esau said, ‘Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me as this day;’ he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, got up and left; thus, Esau spurned the birthright.”
In this excerpt the Torah shows us the manifestation of their personalities through a story. The Torah creates a sharper image as to how the “Ish Tam” and “Ish Sadeh” function in live situations. Esav returns from the field and acts impulsively, selling his birthright in a shortsighted hurry. Yaakov acts cleverly and tricks Esav, manipulating his impulsive behavior.
Importance Of Contrast: Yaakov and Esav
The Torah is very clearly introducing the reader to Yaakov and Esav’s characters by stressing the polarity of their personalities. The Torah immediately gives three introductory anecdotes that serve to build their distinct natures. The use of two extremes, Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh, provides a framework through which we will view Yaakov’s character throughout our study.
End Of Intro To Yaakov: The Point
Each of these three anecdotes — their births, their personalities, and the story of the birthright — works to introduce the contrast between Yaakov and Esav. With Yaakov on his heel, Esav leads the way out of the womb and thus becomes the eldest (bechor). Reflective of their births, Yaakov develops into a wholesome, yet subdued individual while Esav thrives in the field. Finally, these traits are exemplified by the sale of the birthright, as Esav’s impulse cedes the birthright to Yaakov’s cunning.
It is important to note that, as we shall see, Yaakov’s resorting to trickery or cunning (as he did here) is a means of avoiding confrontation. Yaakov uses deception in lieu of voicing concerns or facing his challengers head-on. Thus, trickery is an important part of Yaakov’s nature as the passive Ish Tam. A clear theme will develop throughout our study of Yaakov’s life: Yaakov’s tendency to resort to trickery and/or fleeing in place of confrontation as means of combatting antagonists.
Thus, through polarization of the characters Yaakov and Esav, the Torah has displayed the two extremes of impulse and passivity — Ish Sadeh and Ish Tam; the balance of which will present itself as the ultimate goal in Yaakov’s development. These are the traits that Yaakov will need to master in order to earn the name of Yisrael. As Rashi later notes in 35:10, “Yisrael” is a name that connotes nobility and authority, while “Yaakov” connotes the attribute of trickery.
Though our story (based on the Torah’s presentation) will be critical of Yaakov as an Ish Tam, it is important to note that the characteristics of Ish Tam are not inherently negative. In fact, commentators such as Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rav Saadia Gaon, and Radak all interpret “Ish Tam” to be describing Yaakov as well-rounded and righteous. That said, the approach of Ish Tam is not viable in all situations. 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 has been the introductory framework for Yaakov’s character. In the next installment we shall begin to see how Yaakov’s behaviors in stories — such as the stealing of the bracha and his time with Lavan — are clearly reflective of this introduction to Yaakov, the Ish Tam. Yaakov’s behaviors in 3 different stories (1. The stealing of the bracha 2. His time with Lavan 3. The struggle with the angel) will highlight Yaakov’s commitment to non-confrontation and will show us that his passivity is an issue that God Himself will choose to address.
1. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag,“Introduction to Breishit.”↩