Monday, November 15, 2010

What We Learn from Jacob

I love the patriarchal narratives found in the book of Genesis, and in particular I find the chapters featuring the stories of Jacob and Esau, and Jacob's his sons riveting. Why? Because these biblical actors are so incredibly ordinary, regular people with foibles like your and mine. And in their ordinariness, they can teach us so much about life - important lessons to help us live together understand and respect one another. Often, when I hear of the disfunctionalities of peoples' family lives, I am reminded of the very issues faced, and in many cases overcome by, our patriarchal families.

For example, the issue of sibling rivalry pops up time and again. We're taught that the twins Jacob and Esau fought for dominance even in their mother's womb, distressing Rebecca to the point where she asked G-d to take her life. When it was time for their birth, Jacob tried to hold Esau back so that he could be born first. No, I don't think we're supposed to take this account literally; I think it serves to set-up the story of the deep rivalry between the brothers and Jacob's desire to supplant Esau as the favored one.

After the twins' birth, each parent developed a preference for one of the boys. we read that Isaac favored Esau, the hunter, 'because the taste of game was in his mouth.' Translation: Esau was developing into the 'manly man' that Isaac, who lived in the shadow of his powerful father, never became. On the other hand, Rebecca favored the outwardly mild, thoughtful and clever Jacob.

When they were young, Jacob manages to wrest the Firstborn Rights from his brother; coming out of the field famished after a day of hunting, Esau smells a delicious lentil stew that Jacob is cooking, requests some, and Jacob agrees but demands the Birthright in return. Esau, declaring 'what good is a Birthright if I'm going to die,' accepts the trade. Some readers would criticize Jacob for the uneven exchange, but my reaction is to be critical of Esau. The truth is that he wasn't dying, he was just hungry and so focused on his bodily needs that he couldn't think clearly. He spurned the Birthright by letting it go so easily, for a bowl of stew.

More condemnatory of Jacob is the later incident where the blind and dying Isaac asks Esau to go hunt a deer and fix the venison stew that he loves, so that after eating and sating himself Isaac can give his final blessing to his firstborn son. Rebecca, wanting the blessing to go to Jacob, colludes with the younger twin to get Isaac to unintentionally give the blessing to Jacob instead. This enrages Esau (with more than a little justification) to the point where Rebecca sends Jacob fleeing for his life. But clever and thoughtful Jacob learns an important lesson from the adversity; after a strange dream while resting during his flight, he realizes that G-d is there with him, to comfort and protect him through his travail. Jacob declares famously, 'G-d was in this place, and I - I did not know it.'

Returning after years of exile with his two wives and two concubines, Jacob still fears his brother's wrath. he approaches cautiously and is skeptical when Esau receives him with apparent welcome and forgiveness. We read this account in this week's Torah portion,Vayishlach. having received a blessing from what appears to be an angel of G-d on the morning of his re-entry to Canaan, Jacob realizes that he will have to remain alive in order to realize the blessing; out of his caution, he holds his brother at arm's length and moves his family into a region where Esau has not established himself.

Jacob's growth to maturity, his learning important lessons from the adversities he faces, sets the stage for similar life lessons by his son, Joseph. But that's a subject for another essay. For now, I certainly recommend the Jacob narratives as presenting important life lessons even for us, in the 21st century of the common era. Enjoy!