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Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 10th Kislev 5777, 10th December 2016
How is Father Yaacov different from Father Avraham and Father Yitzhak? A few examples come to mind. For one thing, he has more than one wife. Instead of one or two children – he has a baker’s dozen (including Dina)! And most blatantly – he seems to attract trouble.
Now Avraham certainly had troubles, even wars. Through deception, he nearly lost Sarah to Pharaoh and to Avimelech, and for duplicity he was told to leave (albeit with sufficient recompense in terms of cattle and sheep and gold and silver to have made the exercise economically worthwhile). Altogether, Chazal count ten trials, some of which are only Midrash, including the traumatic experience of nearly sacrificing his son.
Yitzhak was the son being offered up (but not accepted) as a sacrifice. Using his father’s ploy, he almost lost Rivka to the same Avimelech (with the same economic payoff); he fought insolent shepherds and insisted on digging wells to draw water for his livestock.
But notice that these troubles are almost all with outsiders: Pharaoh, Avimelech, shepherds, God.
But Yaacov. From his birth he was in conflict with his surroundings, and especially with the people close to him. Esau was his buddy and his nemesis. He wangled Esau’s birthright and Yitzhak’s blessing for Esau, earning his brother’s enmity.
He sets off to seek a suitable wife and also, incidentally, to keep a few hundred kilometers between him and his brother, and there he encounters a much more cunning opponent than Esau. Lavan. Lavan, Rivka’s brother and the father of Rachel and Leah, is perhaps the most sinister character in the Torah, even more so than the snake in the Garden of Eden. He’s a master manipulator, one who would fit in well in today’s era of what is called “post-truth.” (Have you heard of post-truth? It was selected as the OED’s Word of the Year! Facts do not matter. Emotions, and repeated repetitions of a falsehood or almost-truth are the hallmarks of post-truth.) According to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, Lavan is the archetypical two-faced anti-Semite, seemingly friendly, but downright deadly in his actions.
Of course, Yaacov is upset when Lavan plays his first trick on him – switching Leah for Rachel after seven years of work – but he does not make a big deal about it, because he can’t (he has nowhere else to go) and perhaps because he realizes that what goes around – comes around. He tricked his father and brother. Lavan tricked him. And tricks will continue to run in the DNA of the family as we will see in the stories of Joseph and Yehuda in two weeks’ time.
So Yaacov’s adversaries are much closer and more personal than the ones faced by his father and grandfather. Therefore, his reactions to adversity have to be more personal and imaginative. When facing a monarch, or God, you are limited in what you can do in retaliation. When facing a person from your own family, the options are much more varied.
Yaacov is also distinguished from Avraham and Yitzhak by the type of visions he receives. All three received messages, but the only ones we read about for the first two ancestors pertain to their future: having children, the dimensions of the future nation they will beget, the land they will inherit. There’s poetry there, but no flamboyance.
Yaacov, on the other hand, has much more imaginative visions. He sees a ladder with angels traipsing up and down, and he sees God at its head. He sees visions of the sheep he will inherit from Lavan jumping and carousing. Next week he will dream (or experience) hand to hand conflict with an angel. The very last sentence of our parsha tells us that he was accosted by angels, and he realized it was their camping grounds, so he calls the place Mahanayim (a double camp). (And this visionphilia was passed on to his favorite son Yosef, too!)
But with all this, Yaacov is no head-in-the-clouds astronaut. He’s practical and he is strong. The description of him last week as “yoshev ohalim” – a sitter in the tents – would imply a homebody without much physical prowess, albeit a lot of aspirations. Yet from the beginning of his journey, we see a different person. He has the strength to roll a boulder off a well – a job usually requiring a whole bunch of shepherds. He drew water for Rachel’s herd. He was a shepherd for 20 years, and he successfully fought off an angel.
Thus Yaacov is the most complex of the forefathers. He is granted more visions than the others, he gets embroiled in more spats with ordinary people than the others, and he shows more fear and more daring than the others. He can also be grossly insensitive, as when he lashes out at Rachel when she expresses her anguish at not being able to conceive. In the early stages, he also treats God as a business partner. After the ladder dream he offers God a deal: You bring me home safe and sound, and in return I will accept you as my God; I will build you a house and I will give you a tithe from all that I earn. We don’t see such negotiations with Avraham and Yitzhak.
Stated in other terms, we see in Yaacov traits of many different types of people. We have the dreamer, the practical, the believer, the deal-maker, the conniver, the aggriever, the aggrieved, the planner, the implementer – the human being at his best and worst.
To be sure, Avraham and Yitzhak also had many sides, but they are not put on display as they are with Yaacov. It is with Yaacov that we begin the true saga of our people, and it is in him that we can see our own strengths and our weaknesses to this day.