When we first encounter the young Jacob in the Torah, he is “a mild man who stayed in camp.” In contract, his older twin brother Esau, whose heel he grasped as they emerged from Rebecca’s womb, was “a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors.” Yet, only chapters later in Genesis, Jacob is wrestling with and overcoming a mystery man, and demands that he be blessed by this manifestation of God on earth. God gives him the name “Israel” – “for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” This transformation of Jacob from bookworm to wrestler can only be understood if we examine the patriarch’s life in more detail. It certainly is a remarkable metamorphosis.
Jacob’s education in the ways of the world begins with Rebecca, his mother. Rebecca is the sister of Laban, a man immersed in the politics of duplicity and tricks. While the passive Isaac preferred Esau to Jacob – Esau was the man of action that his father never could be – Rebecca realized her younger son had to get out of the tent, muddy himself in the real world, and seize the birthright from his older brother. If that meant deceiving his father, so be it. It was the time to leave the yeshiva of Shem and Eber, as it was millennia later time for scholars to leave the Volozhin Yeshiva and fight for survival and sovereignty.
Rebecca planned the logistics of the deception. Having lived in the house of Laban she had to prepare Jacob for a reality that had to be faced if the young man was to be the father of a nation. The matriarch overhears the elderly and blind Isaac requesting of Esau to hunt and bring home a tasty meal and in return be given “the innermost blessing before I die.” Rebecca engineers a plan for Jacob to deceive his father and be blessed with the birthright as he deserved: Jacob will take the best of the flock and feed the Esau-like meal to Isaac.
But Jacob is reluctant – Esau is hairy and Isaac will discover the deception and curse his younger son. Rebecca prepares the meal and skins kids, placing their hairy skin on Jacob’s smooth hands and hairless neck.
When Jacob enters Isaac’s tent, the deception succeeds despite the blind man’s suspicion that he was blessing a son with the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau.
Jacob’s wearing of the skins is not just a clever way to deceive his father. The wearing of the skins was the beginning of the scholar’s conversion into a man of action.
Jacob actually transformed himself into Esau. He was now learning the ways of a rough world. To survive in this world often demands that we submerge ourselves in the realm of politics and deception. For the moment that Jacob stole Esau’s identity, he began to absorb that identity into his being.
Have you seen the black and white photographs of the members of Hashomer, the Jewish self-defense organization in the Land of Israel of a century ago? According to historian Martin Gilbert: “Blending in with local customs, the watchmen spoke Arabic, wore a mixture of Arab and Circassian dress, carried modern weapons and were, in many cases, expert horsemen.”
To become warriors, the men of Hashomer had to adopt “the skin of Esau” – in this case they had to transform themselves from meek denizens of the shtetl into fighters in the ethos of the Arabs. Their voice was still the voice of Jacob, but the adoption of dress, language and military ability gave them the hands, arms and customs to survive outside the tent. Only to those Jews who celebrate Jewish spirituality to the exclusion of political reality were these Jews of Hashomer “circumcised Cossacks.”
Only to those Jews who idealize martyrdom and pacifism is it preferable to be slaughtered in a pogrom than to adopt the fighting ability of those who murder Jews.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Samson learns the arts of war and power from his life with the victorious Philistines, not from the weak Danites. In his own life, Jabotinsky mirrored his fictional hero by negotiating an alliance with Ukrainian nationalists, their hands stained with the blood of tens of thousands of Jews. Politics stains the purity of the white kittel. But one must survive to wear the ritual robe representing purity.
Jacob flees to Padan-Aram to escape Esau’s wrath. His dream – that of angels ascending to heaven and returning to Earth on a ladder – has been interpreted by rabbis as representing the rise and decline of the great empires that have persecuted the Jews at the height of their power, only to be defeated by God. This dream marks the moment that Jacob looks into a future of his descendants and has visions of enemies that want to destroy his progeny, yet fail.
His dream is the dream of a founder of nation. It is no longer the story of one man fleeing for his life. Jacob is being prepared for his role as Israel.
The years for Jacob in the corrupt and treacherous house of Laban prepared the patriarch further for the role of statesman.
Being cheated by his father-in-law again and again, dealing with strife within his family, and the ultimate revenge of Jacob in turning the tables on Laban – all were preparations for the confrontations with God and Esau. Jacob, who not long ago was studying in the yeshiva of Shem and Eber, was now a military leader who defended his family by dividing them into two camps. While this was unnecessary because Esau would soon embrace him, Jacob was learning to deal with the realities of being a father of a nation. By the time of his wrestling match with the mysterious emissary of God, Jacob has been transformed into Israel.
With the rape of Jacob and Leah’s daughter Dina, the patriarch’s evolution is complete.
While sons Simeon and Levi massacre the Canaanites out of a sense of honor – “should our sister be treated like a whore?” – Jacob is not sympathetic to the notion of an honor killing. He is not interested in his daughter’s trauma as a victim of rape.
His response was pure realpolitik: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and Perizites: my men are few in number, so that if they unite against us and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”
Jacob is speaking the language of statecraft, not the language of ideology and honor. He speaks as the founder of a nation trying to protect its survival. He did not learn this through years of study in tents.
His experiences with the harsh reality of the world completed his transformation.
Jacob’s transformation from scholar to statesman does not mean that one role comes at the expense of another. As we see from Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his sons, his spiritual powers never left him.
Although he acted like Esau and mimicked him, although he had to use Laban’s tricks against his father-in-law, the voice was always the voice of Jacob. The lesson for us is that we should never lose the core identity that we have inherited from our ancestors. We live in the world as Jews. But often we have to turn to our adversaries and learn their strengths so to be able to defeat them and live.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.