Oy, Yankele, Yankele. Such a good boy. Such big problems. He obeys his mother and thereby deceives his father. He obtains his brother’s blessing and has to run for his life. Is there no justice in his world?
There is justice, but not the way Yaacov calculates it. In his eyes, he did what he did because it was essential to keep Yitzhak’s heritage alive. There was collateral damage – upsetting his father, igniting his brother’s rage? Nisht azei gefeilach.
He’s on the run and God comes to him at night, in a dream, promising him all sorts of things, but not exactly what Yaacov wants and needs at the moment. Let’s examine the offer and counteroffer.
God promises: “I will give the land to you and your descendants, and they will be like the sand on the earth.” Yaacov totally ignores this. Instead, Yaacov begins with: If God will be with me (that was already promised) and watch over me (also promised), and provide me with bread to eat and clothing to wear (not mentioned by God at all), and return me to my father’s home (already promised) – then God will be my God.
What happened in this give and take is like the Knesset discussing some broad legislation, where each party slips in something that will satisfy its constituency. Yaacov’s need at the moment, what is most important to him are the basics: food to eat and clothing to wear.
This is a classic case of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Before Yaacov can even consider long range plans like inheriting the land for his progeny, of which he has none, or self-fulfillment, he has to satisfy his basic needs – food, clothing, shelter and safety. Promises of land and progeny? That’s for another day.
After Yaacov has been in Laban’s house for a few years, his sense of justice is again put to the test. He makes an ironclad deal with Laban, specifying very clearly, “I will work seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” He works his seven years for Rachel, and when he wakes up the morning after, lo and behold he finds himself married to Leah instead.
Not fair! he says. Tsk tsk tsk, Laban answers, that’s the way we do things in this country – the elder before the younger (hint hint nudge nudge). So Yaacov puts in a second stint of seven years of hard labor to pay for Rachel.
After he has amassed four wives (two wives and two concubines, to be precise) and eleven children, and after Rachel has finally given birth to a boy of her own, Yaacov announces his intention to return home, and again, Laban tries to cheat him out of his pay. Only this time, Yaacov is ready for him, and with God’s help, he ends up a wealthy man, at Laban’s expense, of course. Which enrages Laban’s sons too.
So for the second time in his life, Yaacov has to leave a home at odds with the rest of the family. He sneaks away, with his large family, servants, sheep, oxen, the works, enraging Laban – either because Yaacov got the better of him or, as he says so innocently, because he is being deprived of seeing his grandchildren (boo hoo hoo).
But the deception is doubled. Rachel has stolen her father’s house idols, and when Laban catches up with Yaacov’s caravan, he demands them back. Except that Rachel is able to hide them, causing a bigger row between Yaacov and Laban.
If we want to sum up Yaacov’s life, from the beginning until his return to Canaan, we would have to call it Deception Incorporated. The aims are good, the desires are generally pure. It’s just the implementation that trips the alarms at every juncture.
It’s as though Yaacov’s sense of right and justice is not in synch with that of others around him. He is up to his neck in a strong current that is always against him. In later chapters, this tendency will flare up again, but then Yaacov will be the aggrieved bystander rather than an active participant in the deceptions. In fact, it is only at the end of Yaacov’s life, in Egypt, that a temporary peace will descend on him – but only on him, and not on his family (like father, like son).
Was Yaacov wrong in what he did? Can we justify his actions by saying that he had to act as he did because of his adversaries – Esau and Laban – who would not have it any other way?
If we say that his basic instincts were actually good, and that he really didn’t want to play this negative role, then we have to conclude that Yaacov’s problem was, in part, that he was in the wrong part of the world, dealing with the wrong people. Perhaps he should have been in Uganda. Or upstate New York. Or Canada.