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Tricksters, Manipulators and Destiny

Torah Talk on Vayeitzei 5780

Jacob is the most interesting and confounding of all the patriarchs and matriarchs. He is, in a literal sense, the true father of our people, since it is his 12 sons who are the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. But what a complicated father of our people this man is!

On the one hand, he has many characteristics we all should admire: Jacob is intelligent, industrious, courageous, romantic, creative, clever and prolifically productive. He repeatedly triumphs over better-equipped adversaries and eventually creates a huge family that will evolve from a clan into a nation, our nation. Jacob lives an extraordinary, and extraordinarily important, life, and without him monotheism would not have survived at all.

On the other hand, Jacob is also tricky, manipulative, whiny, and as duplicitous as a modern-day politician. Throughout his life he is far more concerned with results than with morality. He is an awful sibling, a lousy son to his father, a mediocre husband, and a spectacularly bad parent, and he repeatedly ends up in weirdly terrible situations that he has, either directly or indirectly, caused. And while he benefits from others' forgiveness, he himself holds onto grudges until his last breath.

At the beginning of the Torah portion of Vayeitzei our “hero” Jacob is in full flight from his furious brother Esau, rushed out of town by his mother Rebecca after conning his father and defrauding his brother of the family birthright. He lies down and puts his head on a rock and has that famous dream of angels going up and down a stairway to heaven (cue Led Zeppelin here, if you like), and God at the top of it. The Lord promises Jacob that he will become the father of a nation and that the very land he is lying on will belong to him and his descendants forever. Jacob awakens and says, famously, “God was in this place and I, I didn’t know it.” Thus reassured, he heads out towards the old country, his grandfather Abraham’s town of Harran, to seek his fortune.

Arriving there he immediately falls desperately in love with Rachel, so much so that he agrees to work for seven years without pay in order to marry her. He is then tricked by an even more duplicitous dude, his father-in-law Laban—and you thought your in-laws were problematic—who pawns off his less attractive daughter Leah on the unsuspecting (and possibly inebriated) Jacob. Jacob is forced to agree to work another seven years just to get the bride he originally wanted.

It only gets messier from there. Children follow in rapid succession, as do two more wives. The domestic complications of his household, the tricks and tribulations of his willful wives and rambunctious boys multiply. After 14 years Jacob’s household has expanded exponentially, but his pockets remain empty.

He then agrees to work for the same trickster, Laban, for another six years in order to build up a grubstake. Using advanced genetic manipulation techniques, he somehow contrives to create a huge dividend for himself (think agricultural hedge fund, or perhaps playing the sheep-and-goat-futures market brilliantly), which leads to a quick escape for Jacob and his whole gang from the land of Laban. After a final conflict in which everyone present is manipulating everyone else, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, the secondary wives Bilhah and Zilpah and 12 children, plus all those sheep, goats and cows, head west towards Canaan, and this weekly installment of the perils of Jacob concludes.

Everybody in Vayeitzei is on the make in one way or another. If the Torah is a spiritual and inspirational text, what are we to think of a narrative replete with deception and manipulation?

Interestingly, in spite of the very real, very human fallibility of our hero, despite the less-than-stellar conduct of all the men and women in our portion, by the conclusion of the sedrah everything seems to have worked out. Jacob’s descendants are positioned to grow into the nation that God predicted, and everyone is now headed back to the land that God promised.

In essence, God has had an eye on the end result, even when the supremely fallible human beings didn’t. The abiding message may simply be that we may not always act well or demonstrate sound judgment—but God has an eye on the long-term good, and God somehow can bring us all home.

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