Parasha Vayetze: A light in the darkness

Why is Jacob known as "the most chosen of the patriarchs," the most worthy of emulation?

parsha vayetzeh 88 (photo credit: )
parsha vayetzeh 88
(photo credit: )
PARASHA: VAYETZE "And he spent the night there, since the sun had set, and took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep" (Genesis 28:11). Why is Jacob known as "the most chosen of the patriarchs," the most worthy of emulation? After all, Abraham was the one who discovered the God of justice and compassion, and it was Isaac who walked the walk of self-sacrifice and commitment unto death for the sake of heaven. So why do our sages single out Jacob for the highest accolade? I believe the beginning of our analysis can be found in a teaching of the Talmud: "Our patriarchs initiated the daily prayers: Abraham enacted the morning prayer (shaharit), Isaac the afternoon prayer (minha), and Jacob the evening prayer (arvit)" (B.T. Berachot 28b). I would suggest that each of these prayers, and especially the time when they are to be recited, encapsulate the essence of their composers. Abraham symbolizes the dawn, the beginning of a new era. After all, did not Abraham initiate an entirely novel picture of the universe with his discovery of ethical monotheism, which gave rise not only to Judaism but also to Christianity and Islam? And Abraham's success in winning so many adherents, as well as his financial accomplishments and military prowess, make for an optimistic personality whose faith in God enabled him to believe in himself and his future. Isaac is more the pensive, withdrawn and passive stalwart who submits to Abimelech's treachery in silence, who courageously accompanies his father to his binding on the altar, and who is bonded to the land of Israel with a profound love and commitment. His personality is much more akin to the stillness of twilight - repose after the Sturm und Drang of a difficult day. Jacob is the patriarch of the night. Indeed, his many adventures from the time he leaves his father's house in Beersheba to his successful encounter with an anonymous assailant (the spirit of Esau, according to our sages) some two decades later are portrayed as having taken place at night: he dreams as he sets forth into exile (Genesis 28:11), and successfully wrestles with a "man" all night - indeed, the Torah testifies that "the sun rose for him when he passed Penuel" (Genesis 32:32). The Midrash intensifies Jacob's identification with night by stressing that God made the sun set earlier in the first instance and rise earlier in the second (Rashi, Genesis 32:32). Jacob dreamed in Bethel at sunset, and passed Penuel at sunrise. WHAT IS the symbolism of night? Night is a black, bleak, awesome and frightening period; a time of unseen obstacles, nightmares. It is therefore identified with tragedy and exile. From this perspective, Jacob is the patriarch of night; he was hounded by Esau, deceived by Laban, bereft of a beloved wife and favored son for much of his adult life, and forced to spend many years - including his last ones - in exile from his homeland, Israel. Night is also the dark and frightening aspect of one's personality; the id or evil instinct, the often uncontrolled "dark side" (sitra ahra), which lurks in the heart of every individual. In this respect as well, Jacob had to confront the Esau within himself, the part of him which was very different from the "whole-hearted person who dwelt in tents of study," the deceiving schemer who yearned for the birthright, the blessings and patriarchal acceptance at any cost. Indeed, Jacob confronted the night: the night without and the night within, the objective challenges and tragedies which are part and parcel of an unredeemed world as well as the subjective temptations and seductions which are part of a soul-in-progress. Jacob confronted the night - and overcame the obstacles. The Almighty Himself testifies to his victory, bestowing upon him a new name, Israel, "because you have fought with powers (elohim) and with individuals, and you have overcome" (Genesis 32:29). Jacob is the one patriarch who confronts his various dreams: He rises, falls and rises again, just like the ascending and descending angels in his dream at Bethel, and he seems to be overwhelmed in Labanland by a quest for financial success, as in his second dream of speckled, spotted and striped goats after 22 years with Laban. But he eventually succeeds in emerging triumphant and whole when he returns to his father's house. It is in this spirit that he bestows the ultimate blessing on his grandchildren: "May the Lord… who has shepherded me until this day, may the divine messenger who has redeemed me from all evil, bless these youths..." (Genesis 48:9). Jacob/Israel never sought a charmed life of consistent righteousness in which he would be carried from pinnacle to pinnacle by a constantly uplifting God. His was rather a life of confrontation, conflict and struggle. He is the chosen of the patriarchs because it is ultimately his prayer - and his triumph - which must serve as the model for us all: "Dear God, I do not ask that You make my life easy; I only ask that You help me to be strong and to overcome." This is the significance of our historic name Israel. Shabbat shalom The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.