Where Were We?
In Part 4 of “From Yaakov To Yisrael” we went through the story of Deena in Shechem. Yaakov’s behavior in this story seems to reflect the traits of Yaakov, and not Yisrael. Immediately following this story in Shechem (35:10), God speaks to Yaakov changing his name from “Yaakov” to “Yisrael.” However, this story is Yaakov’s last as a protagonist. Thus, we are left uncertain: Did Yaakov ever embody the traits of Yisrael?
In this, the final section of the series, we will explain that the legacy of Yisrael, though ostensibly not fully realized by Yaakov himself, was achieved through his children.
Yehuda: Condensed Character Development
Parshat Vayeshev begins with the proverbial passing of the baton, as the role of protagonist is transferred from Yaakov to his children. Vayeshev begins with the famous sale of Yosef. This episode gains the reader entry into the discourse of the brothers as they plot against Yosef. Through their conversations we are introduced to the personalities of the most vocal brothers.
Immediately following the story of Yosef’s sale, the Torah diverges into a tangential story of Yehuda and Tamar (ending with the birth of Peretz and Zerach) before returning to Yosef’s storyline. There is debate amongst Torah commentators as to the chronology of these two storylines, but regardless of its chronology, the Torah chose to present these stories successively. By noting Yehuda’s role in Parshat Vayeshev, as well as Yaakov’s later description of Yehuda in his dying bracha in Parshat Vayechi, we can paint the important picture of Yehuda’s character.
Leadership: Yehuda In The Sale Of Yosef
We are first introduced to Yehuda’s personality in the sale of Yosef. This first impression of Yehuda displays his raw, but natural, inclination for leadership.
Yosef was on his way to join his brothers shepherding in the field (37:17). In anticipation of his arrival, the brothers conspired to kill him (37:18). Reuven, the eldest brother — and thereby the natural leader — suggested a plan:
וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל־הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר וְיָד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־בוֹ לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל־אָבִיו
“Reuben heard, and he rescued him from their hand; he said, ‘We will not strike him mortally.’ And Reuben said to them: ‘Do not shed blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but send no hand against him!’ – in order to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father.”
Around that time, Reuven left his brothers as evidenced by 37:29 — “Reuben returned to the pit…” (Many commentators suggest reasons for Reuven’s absence, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this study.) It is at this time that Yehuda first displays his leadership ability. Yehuda establishes himself as a leader, speaking out against the plan of Reuven, the eldest brother, by offering an alternative:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל־אֶחָיו מַה־בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת־אָחִינוּ וְכִסִּינוּ אֶת־דָּמוֹ׃ לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים וְיָדֵנוּ אַל־תְּהִי־בוֹ כִּי־אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ הוּא וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו
“Judah said to his brothers, ‘What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites – but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers listened.”
Not only does Yehuda possess the gumption to contradict Reuven, but a careful reading reveals that the brothers were seemingly further swayed by Yehuda than they were by Reuven. Note the end of 37:27 — “…And his brothers listened.” Rashi cites Onkelos’s explanation of these words: “the brothers agreed with Yehuda.” They were convinced. A similar reaction by the brothers is absent from Reuven’s suggestion to throw Yosef in the pit in 37:21-22. This distinction is further supported by the willingness of the brothers to abandon Reuven’s plan in favor of Yehuda’s.
Humility: Yehuda In The Trial Of Tamar
Following the sale of Yosef, the Torah diverges into the tangential story of Yehuda and Tamar. As mentioned earlier, many commentators present reasons for this tangent’s specific placement. However, on a broad scale it is clear that this story is in some way a follow-up to Yehuda’s character, as he had an introductory and key role in the previous story of Yosef’s sale.
38:1-25 detail the perhaps unflattering story of failed yibum, as well as Yehuda and Tamar’s conceiving children. The climax of this story is found in 38:26. As Tamar is about to be put to death for alleged harlotry, Yehuda shows great humility and accountability through a public confession of his actions:
וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי־עַל־כֵּן לֹא־נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי וְלֹא־יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּה
“Judah recognized; and he said, ‘She is right; it is from me, inasmuch as I did not give her to Shelah my son,’ and he did not continue to be intimate with her anymore.”
Perhaps the difficulty Yehuda faced in making this confession is expressed by Rashi’s note that Tamar would have sooner died than out Yehuda’s actions in public. The magnitude of this episode is so significant that Midrash Rabbah attributes Yehuda’s meriting kingship to this story alone:
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: אתה הודית במעשה תמר, יודוך אחיך להיות מלך עליהם
“The Holy One, blessed is he, said to Judah, ‘You are different from the preceding brothers, in that you acknowledged your involvement in the incident with Tamar. Therefore, your brothers shall acknowledge you, meaning that your brothers will acknowledge you to be a king over them.”
Culmination Of Yehuda’s Character: Embodying The Traits of Yisrael
We see in these two stories the diverse nature of Yehuda’s character. He displays his ability to speak his mind and rise from the crowd in both the sale of Yosef and his confession – qualities we associate with the Ish Sadeh. Yet, through his confession regarding Tamar he displays the humility and sensitivity of the Ish Tam.
To drive home his embodiment of the characteristics of Yisrael look to the text of Yaakov’s final blessings to Yehuda in 49:8-12. Note Yaakov’s emphasis on Yehuda’s assertive, confrontational nature, the very qualities he (Yaakov) struggled to access as the Ish Tam.
יְהוּדָה אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ יָדְךָ בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ יִשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ׃ גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה מִטֶּרֶף בְּנִי עָלִיתָ כָּרַע רָבַץ כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְלָבִיא מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ
“Judah – you, your brothers will acknowledge; your hand will be at your enemies’ nape; your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you. A lion cub is Judah; from prey, my son, you ascended. He crouched, lied down like a lion, and like an awesome lion, who dares rouse him?”
As the Sforno points out, Yaakov’s description of Yehuda as a lion is metaphorical for his place as king over the Jewish people. It is the qualities of the lion — strength and courage — that qualify Yehuda to be a king and leader amongst his brothers.
Yet Rashbam makes an interesting addition, commenting on the seemingly contradictory words “Gur Aryeh,” or “A lion cub,” found in 49:8 (“lion” suggests an aged lion while “cub” suggests a young lion, therefore their conjunction is contradictory). Rashbam notes a dichotomy within the metaphorical lion, referring to it as “Kal v’gibor.” Seemingly Rashbam is expressing a duality within the lion’s abilities. The lion is “kal” — light-footed, silent, and quick — yet also “gibor” — powerful, courageous and strong.
Furthermore, note the similar duality in the comments of R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch:
“Not in fighting and in the thick of the fray does Judah’s greatness lie. Not flaring-up courage, which in the hour of danger wins respect, and then becomes languid, is what distinguished him, even when he is quietly resting he remains a lion. The greatness which commands respect which he develops in political repose ensures security from without, and internally grants the peace, which under his guidance, allows development to proceed along well-planned lines.”
R. Hirsch’s words beautifully capture the exact dichotomy of the characteristics of Yisrael. As R. Hirsch expresses, it is not raw power (the quality of Ish Sadeh) or patient repose (the quality of Ish Tam) alone that makes Yehuda the optimal leader. Rather, it is the combination and balance of these qualities — the qualities of Yisrael — that make Yehuda great. Yehuda is not unhinged or wild like the Ish Sadeh (like Shimon and Levi or Esav) nor is he silent and complacent like the Ish Tam (like Yaakov). “Even when he is quietly resting he remains a lion.” Yehuda embodies the trait of “bein onit” found in the Rambam — the ability to control and manage both extremes at once. He is Yisrael — the refined blending of Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh.
Yaakov To Yisrael: What Is Yehuda’s Role In Our Study?
Let us now fit this focus on Yehuda into the bigger picture of our study with a quick review. The Torah introduces us to Yaakov through the paradigm of Yaakov vs. Esav, the Ish Tam vs. the Ish Sadeh. We see Yaakov struggle to access the sometimes-necessary confrontational, assertive nature of the Ish Sadeh. This struggle is highlighted by the recurring pattern in Yaakov’s life-stories outlined in the following chart:
|Life with Lavan
|Struggle with Angel
|Antagonist||Esav||Lavan||Esav/Angel of Esav|
|Who prompts Yaakov to act?||Rivka||God||God|
|How Yaakov handles the situation||Tricks Yitzchak and then runs away||Runs away||Runs away (until the angel intervenes)|
Antagonists continuously arise in Yaakov’s life and Yaakov repeatedly resorts to trickery and running away as means of avoiding confrontation.
While Yaakov seemingly reaches a breakthrough in his struggle with the angel, he reverts to the ways of Ish Tam in the story of Deena in Shechem. Following the events in Shechem, God presents Yaakov with a new name:
וַיֹּאמֶר־לוֹ אֱלֹהִים שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב לֹא־יִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל
“…your name is Jacob; your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.”
As we noted, this name-change is clearly indicative of a change in Yaakov’s character. Yet, while we would expect to then see evidence or example of Yaakov’s new character as Yisrael in action, it is immediately following this name change that the Torah shifts away from Yaakov as protagonist, thus leaving the culmination of Yaakov’s transition to Yisrael on a cliffhanger. Did Yaakov ever learn to embody the traits of Yisrael? Did the change of name in 35:10 earn the effect clearly intended by God? Did Yaakov embody the traits of Yisrael?
The Torah does not answer this question through Yaakov, but through Yehuda. Yaakov completes his transition through the son who best embodies the traits of Yisrael — the future king of Yaakov’s descendants, the Jewish people, Bnei Yisrael.
The Climax: Peretz & Zerach
It is immediately following Yehuda’s confession, the peak of Yehuda’s development, that the Torah gives a strange anecdote: The birth of Peretz and Zerach. There are 2 major peculiarities regarding this story:
- In the many cases of genealogy and births given throughout the Torah it is extremely rare that the Torah divulge any more detail than the name of the offspring and the reason behind that name. Yet in the case of Peretz and Zerach the Torah describes a very specific sequence of events during the birthing process.
- This is especially peculiar in light of the fact that this is the only time the Torah will speak in any detail about Peretz and Zerach. Aside from genealogical purposes they are mostly irrelevant in the written Torah.
For these two reasons it is clear that the unusual details of this story must carry broader significance. Considering their characters will be otherwise irrelevant, this anecdote can’t be giving us an introduction to their characters, yet nevertheless the Torah chose to include the detail of their births. Hence, these details must have some other purpose. This purpose must extend beyond mere genealogical awareness because, as mentioned in #1 above, had the purpose been purely genealogical the text would have just given their names and perhaps an explanation of said names as it usually does (see Bereishit 36:9-28 for an example of pure genealogy in the Torah).
It is thus clear that the Torah intends more in the case of Peretz and Zerach. But what is the purpose of these details? What is the lesson?
The Bookend: From Yaakov To Yisrael
The births of Peretz and Zerach represent a beautifully embedded, subtle end to the transition from Yaakov to Yisrael.
Let’s look closely at this story bearing the thematic elements of our study in mind. Firstly, within the peculiar details of their births is an obvious parallel to a similar story: The births of Yaakov and Esav. Rashi picks up on this parallel, comparing the stories in two separate comments on 38:27.
Where It All Began: The Paradigm Of Yaakov & Esav
Recall that this study began with the introduction to Yaakov and Esav at their birth — the first instance in which we saw their characters and personalities. The details of their births served as a symbolic demonstration and paradigm for their characters throughout our study. Yaakov and Esav struggled and fought in the womb. Esav came out first while Yaakov was relegated to the feeble grasping of his heel. For that very reason Yaakov was given his name, “Yaakov,” a name that, as we saw, represented the passive Ish Tam.
The Torah concludes Yaakov’s story and transition in the very way it began: with the symbolic birth of twins. As we will see, the birth of Peretz is the exact correction of Yaakov’s birth — the correction of Yaakov’s struggle as the Ish Tam.
Peretz: “With What Strength You Asserted Yourself”
Through the scope of our study, the details of Peretz’s birth fall beautifully into place. The two stories begin the same way: “…Behold! There were twins in her womb” (25:24 and 38:27). Once again there is a struggle between brothers in the womb. Just as Yaakov and Esav battled to emerge first, Peretz and Zerach did as well; however, the distinct outcomes are a symbolic culmination of this entire study.
וַיְהִי בְלִדְתָּהּ וַיִּתֶּן־יָד וַתִּקַּח הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וַתִּקְשֹׁר עַל־יָדוֹ שָׁנִי לֵאמֹר זֶה יָצָא רִאשֹׁנָה
“And it happened that as she gave birth, that he put out a hand; the midwife took a crimson thread and tied it on his hand saying, ‘This one emerged first!’
Had the story ended right here, there would be naught to discuss. However, the significance of the next pesukim and this entire story are only fully appreciated through the understanding of Yaakov that we have developed throughout this study.
וַיְהִי כְּמֵשִׁיב יָדוֹ וְהִנֵּה יָצָא אָחִיו וַתֹּאמֶר מַה־פָּרַצְתָּ עָלֶיךָ פָּרֶץ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ פָּרֶץ׃ וְאַחַר יָצָא אָחִיו אֲשֶׁר עַל־יָדוֹ הַשָּׁנִי וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ זָרַח
“And it was, as he drew back his hand, that behold! His brother emerged. And she said, ‘With what strength you asserted yourself!’ And he called his name Peretz. Afterwards his brother on whose hand was the crimson thread came out; and he called his name Zerah.”
Zerach’s arm came out first making him the firstborn. However, the younger son Peretz did not emerge feebly grasping the heel of his brother. Rather, he asserted himself over his brother! Yaakov’s struggle to access the strength or courage to fight and confront is what relegated him to grasping the heel of Esav — the paradigm for his life’s struggle. Peretz, however, possesses the strength and courage of his father, Yehuda. He possesses the ability to confront and assert. This also explains why it is Peretz’s, not Zerach’s, bloodline that is chosen to carry the kingship.
Side-by-side the births of Yaakov and Peretz represent the opening and closing of Yaakov’s character development. We began with Yaakov — the Ish Tam — and we conclude with Peretz, son of Yehuda — the paradigm of “Yisrael.”
This chart displays side-by-side the opening and closing stories of our study:
|Birth of Yaakov||Birth of Peretz|
|Birth of Twins||25:24 — “…Behold! Twins in her womb.”||38: 27 — “…Behold! [there were] twins in her womb.”|
|Struggle in the Womb||25:22 — “And the children crushed within her…” (See the Midrash/Rashi and Yalkut Shemoni detailed ealier in our study.||38:29 — “And it was, as he drew back his hand, that behold! His brother emerged. And she said, ‘With what strength you asserted yourself!’ And he called his name Peretz.”|
|Initiative of the Bechor||25:25 — “The first one emerged red…”||38:28 — “…it happened as she gave birth, that he put out a hand…”|
|Reaction of the Younger Brother||25:26 — “After that his brother emerged with his hand grasping onto the heel of Esau…”||38:29 — “…as he drew back his hand, that behold! His brother emerged. And she said, ‘With what strength you asserted yourself…’”
38:30 — “Afterwards his brother on whose hand was the crimson thread came out…”
|Naming||25:26 — “…emerged with his hand grasping onto the heel of Esau; and he called his name Jacob."
Rashi — “…because of the grasping of the heel.”
|38:29 — “…And she said, ‘with what strength you asserted yourself!’ And he called his name Peretz.”
Rashi — Paratzta = “You brought strength upon yourself.”
The births of Peretz and Zerach are meant to reflect the births of Yaakov and Esav and represent the development of Jewish leadership — the transition from Yaakov to Yisrael.
Eternal Lessons: The Practical Application Of Our Study
This study does not only provide a comprehensive understanding of Yaakov’s character and development in the Torah, it also comes to teach a broader lesson applicable to each of our lives. The contrast of Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh — with all their strengths and weaknesses — and the eventual merging of these qualities into “Yisrael,” offers deep insight into what sort of people we should aim to be as we constantly refine and develop our own characters.
As we saw from Rambam’s Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Deot 1:4), the ideal temperament to live by is one of “bein onit.” The poised nature of “bein onit” does not represent balance. Rather, it represents the ability to be master over one’s emotions and inclinations. It represents the presence of mind to call upon anger in its time and complacency in its time. These are the traits that Yaakov worked toward and that Yehuda ultimately mastered. In the words of R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, “even when he is quietly resting he remains a lion.” This is the legacy of Yisrael and of Yehuda.
The holistic and thematic study of Yaakov’s stories and character reveal a greater design within the Torah’s presentation of Yaakov as a protagonist. While individually each story has importance and lessons to offer, these stories are interwoven to create a greater tapestry that is revealed by taking a step back to look broadly at the Torah’s consistent themes, contrasts, and lessons. Approaching the Torah on this macro and holistic level can reveal developing messages often missed when focusing on each story independently.
Here we saw Yaakov’s character-struggle and the overcoming of that struggle through his descendants. Hopefully the manner of this study imparts lessons in methodology, a better understanding of Yaakov, as well as analysis, understandings, and lessons from the different parts of the Torah we came across in the process.
May we continue to refine our own characters through the continued study of Torah and the application of its lessons.