I’ve always seen Jacob as characterized by two central yet seemingly
contradictory facets. On the one hand he is the patriarch who is always around
his kids. He is a father and a husband first and foremost. On the other hand,
his family appears to be deeply dysfunctional, with strife, bitterness and
jealousy rending the family asunder.
Beginning with the time he was a
boy, Jacob witnessed his father Isaac’s favoritism toward Esau. When he gets
older Jacob repeats this error by favoring Joseph. It’s unbelievable that the
Torah actually says, “And Jacob [Israel] loved his son Joseph more than all his
other sons.” Which father does that, or is so blatant about it? This leads, of
course, to enormous, nearly deadly resentment toward Joseph from his elder
siblings. But in last week’s Torah reading, just when you think that the family
is finally united and things are healed, Jacob does it again.
in his dying moment, after Joseph has forgiven his brothers their attempted
fratricide and brought everyone together, saving them from famine, Jacob first
seeks to bless Joseph’s children, but not necessarily the children of his other
And second, he gives the first-born blessing to Efraim, and not
Menashe, the older son.
What is it about Jacob that he seemingly can’t
stop the favoritism? When Joseph objects and essentially says, “Please father,
bless Menashe first, for he is the firstborn,” Jacob responds, within earshot of
the older boy, “I know, my son. I know. And while he will grow to be a great
man, he will be outdone by his brother.” Surely Menashe didn’t feel good hearing
Is this simply a case of family dysfunction becoming a family
heirloom, passed from generation to generation? I have seen this hundreds of
times with families I have counseled. The same toxic patterns are repeated from
parent to child to parent to child. Studies show, for example, the high
prevalence of repetitive adultery in families.
If your parents cheated,
there is a likelihood that you will cheat as well. The same is true of divorce.
Children of divorce have a far higher rate than the national average.
THAT what this is about? Abraham favored one son, Isaac, and cast off Ishmael,
albeit with Sarah’s prodding and even God’s acquiescence. Isaac repeats the
favoritism with Esau, thereby scarring Jacob deeply.
And Jacob repeats it
first with Joseph, then with Joseph’s children, and then with just one of
Joseph’s sons. Seemingly unable to break free of the pattern, Jacob’s family
remains divided by bitter jealousies.
This might explain why Jacob, in
describing how elusive happiness has been in his life, makes one of the more
startling statements of the Torah. When introduced to Pharaoh and asked how old
he is, presumably because he looks older than his years, Jacob responds, “I am
147 years old. My life has been short and bitter, and has not reached the length
of my ancestors’.” Talk about a downer.
But there are few things in life
that can cause greater pain than family dysfunction and continual fighting. No
parent likes watching their children assail each other.
Jacob was worn
down by the constant strife. But he also seems challenged to rise above its
Amid the Bible’s descriptions of his paternal shortcomings,
I have always identified with Jacob more than with any other biblical
personality, with the exception possibly of King David (whose humanity is so
vividly detailed in the Bible).
The reason: Jacob is so lifelike, complex
and real. He is a man whose righteousness is defined not by perfection but by a
constant striving to live by the will of God amid the scarring he has endured
and the human limitations that tie the hands of us all. He is the father of his
nation, named for that constant wrestling and striving, “Israel, he who wrestles
To use a modern example, Abraham would be like George
Washington, seemingly perfect and inscrutable. The marble man. One, the father
of monotheism. The other, the father of his nation. But Jacob would be
Jefferson. Jefferson, the quintessential American. The man of great complexity
and even greater contradictions. But the true author of our independence. The
man who, in his multifaceted, intricate nature captures the true spirit of
America in all its glory, its virtue, its inconsistencies and its
OUR PATRIARCH Jacob is nothing like the Christian Jesus.
There is not only no pretension to divinity, there is no pretension to absolute,
angelic-like behavior. Rather, in Jacob, as in Jefferson, we find a man who is
timeless and relevant, inspirational and a role model; strong-willed, determined
and effective precisely because of his humanity.
A man who never shirks
from confronting the evil of the world, even if it sometimes seems to compromise
him. But a man, above all else, who believes in eternal principles and
ultimately never abandons them. Jacob is the “most special of all the
patriarchs.” A man whom we can all identify with, who inspires us by his
spirited and indefatigable example.
The writer, “America’s rabbi,” whom
Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the
international best-selling author of 29 books.
On January, 9, 2013, he
will publish The Fedup Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and
Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmu