Parashat Vayetze: Under the bark

Our Talmudic sages place great store in the power of a name. "As is his name, so is he."

parashat vayatze 88 (photo credit: )
parashat vayatze 88
(photo credit: )
'And Jacob took him rods of fresh poplar, and of the almond and of the plane-tree; and peeled white streaks in them, making the white appear which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters in the watering-troughs where the flocks came to drink; and they conceived when they came to drink." - (Gen. 30:37,38) What happens to Jacob, as he lives in Haran with his Uncle Laban? We were introduced to him, in last week's portion, as a "dweller in tents" (Genesis 25:27), a pure and somewhat naive personality. If a tent is the biblical symbol for a house, a house of study and a house of prayer (Numbers 24:5, in accordance with the midrash), then he was wedded to the hearth and to the book (Bible) rather than to the field and the hunt. And although a central act occurs to him (and to a certain extent by him) in his "taking" of the birthright, he still dreams, in the beginning of our Torah reading, of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, of ascending and descending angels, and of God promising him the ancestral Land of Israel. But in Laban-land, we find a very different Jacob. He strikes a business deal with Laban, seemingly asking for next to nothing. He tells Laban to remove all the striped, spotted or speckled sheep and goats; only such "colored" animals which will show up in the flocks will the shepherd son-in-law be allowed to keep. Laban readily agrees, hardly believing his good fortune at such a "sweet" deal. Jacob then sets out to "bioengineer" the flock: he takes branches from several kinds of tree and peels them to create striped wands, which he places near the water troughs where the livestock usually mate. The result is numerous striped and streaked offspring. Jacob thus becomes very wealthy by revealing the "lavan" - Hebrew for white and also the name Laban) under the bark (Gen. 30:37). And not only does Jacob become a "deceiving manipulator"; he almost trades in his dream of uniting heaven and earth and returning to Israel for a dream of material prosperity, a "killing" on the (live)stock market (Gen. 31:10-12). What happened? And why did it happen? Our Talmudic sages place great store in the power of a name. "As is his name, so is he." The Hebrew name Ya'acov (Jacob) has many connotations. The Bible pictures his birth: "And afterwards [Esau's] brother emerged, with his hand grasping onto the heel of Esau; so he named him Ya'acov [ekev means heel]." On the one hand, the name may suggest "coming up from behind," succeeding against difficult odds by dint of extra effort, surviving and triumphing in the end (see Sforno, ad loc). Or the name can connote usurping, undermining, supplanting, crookedly pushing aside (Jeremiah 9:3, Isaiah 40:4). Indeed, Everett Fox, one translator of the Bible, takes the name to mean "heel-sneak"! Will the real Jacob please stand up? The fact is that Jacob is the most fleshed-out personality in the Bible; he is also called "the most special of the patriarchs." He is the father who changes and develops the most, who goes through many transformations until he emerges triumphant as Israel. And the Bible, if we read it closely, reveals the often-hidden keys to his personality and development. Suffice it to say for now that Jacob suffers desperately from the fact that his father Isaac "loved Esau because the hunted venison was in his mouth" (Gen. 25:28). This pregnant phrase, the apparent reason for Esau's favored-son status, emphasizes "red-meat" materialism and silver-tongued manipulation ("entrapment," tsayid) which were the major characteristics of Esau. Hence Rav Haim Ibn Atar (the 19th-century commentator known as the Ohr Hahaim Hakadosh) notes that the next verse, without any break whatsoever, reads: "And Jacob prepared [Hebrew, vayazed] a lentil stew; and Esau came from the field, being faint" (Gen.25:29). The Ohr Hahaim maintains that Jacob had prepared the red stew - the following verse has Esau requesting that his brother "pour into my mouth now from this red, red stuff" - for their father; he desperately wanted to merit paternal love, and felt that perhaps his red stew would be a fitting substitute for Esau's red venison. From this perspective, Jacob had purposefully (vayazed from meizid) prepared the stew in order to curry paternal favor and thereby receive the birthright, so using the stew in order to buy the birthright from Esau seemed a logical switch! (I am indebted to Shmuel Klitsner's excellent work Wrestling Jacob for this reference). From this perspective, Jacob longed to be Esau, longed for the paternal approval which was bestowed upon his twin, longed for the birthright that the patriarch was about to give Esau. It became almost natural for Jacob to acquiesce to his mother Rebekah's plan, to wrap himself in goatskins so that he would be hairy like Esau, to wear the outdoor garb of Esau so that he would smell like Esau, to introduce himself to his blind father, "I am Esau, your firstborn." (27: 18). The one who would be triumphant at the end, who was to diligently surpass by coming up from behind, became a conniving usurper, a heel-sneak who peeled away his authentic whole-hearted personality only to reveal another Laban-like layer of deceptiveness. And this is the greatest punishment of a willing deceiver: He becomes more Esau than Esau, more Laban than Laban. Such is the tragedy of the son so anxious for paternal love that he denies his truest self. The heroism of Jacob lies in his ability to grow back into himself - and his God - and emerge as Israel. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.