Parashat Vayetzeh: Transformation

Jacob has not learned to love

Rachel and Leah 88 248 (photo credit: )
Rachel and Leah 88 248
(photo credit: )
“When morning came, there was Leah!” (Gen. 29:25). How could Jacob believe he was in bed with Rachel and not know he was lying beside Leah? Even if Rachel colluded, telling Leah secrets she and Jacob shared, is it credible that a man in love would not know that the woman he loved was not the woman to whom he made love?
While wryly true that sometimes the person we go to bed with is not the person we wake up to, there is a mystery here. Its solution may lie in the teachings of a Jewish philosopher of the 20th century.
Martin Buber wrote about the difference between two fundamental types of relationships – I-It and I-Thou. The first is a relationship governed by utility. I need you for something – whether a glass of water or a shoulder to cry on. My relationship is fundamentally about my need. As Buber put it, “without ‘It’ man cannot live, but one who lives with ‘It’ alone is not a man.” (Yes, his language is gendered – it was 1923.)
An I-Thou relationship is one in which, even if only for a brief time, you bring all of yourself to another person who is also fully present. There is no calculation; it is not about my own needs. Each person is seen in the fullness of his or her humanity.
Jacob is a man who has learned to serve his needs. He tricked or coerced his brother Esau into selling him the birthright. He has no regard for Esau’s weakness except to exploit it. Esau’s pain, which leads him to cry out when he discovers the trick, is not real to Jacob.
Isaac is Jacob’s old, blind father. Jacob tricks him into believing he is Esau to obtain the birthright blessing. What sort of son, even if encouraged by his mother, practices such a deception on his father? One to whom another person is not entirely real. One who sees his own father as a means to an end. Before Jacob’s cupidity and guile, Isaac is an “It,” not a “Thou.” Jacob has not yet grown into a man, and to him every situation provides opportunities, not encounters.
Even Jacob’s initial experience of God is marked by a utilitarian cast. After his dream of the ladder at Bethel, Jacob declares: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God” (Gen. 28:20-21).
Jacob has not learned to love. Love, in the words of Irish writer Iris Murdoch, is the “extremely difficult realization that someone else is real.”
Now place such a man, to whom other people are not entirely real, in a bed next to a woman he believes he loves. Is he paying attention to her or to himself? Does he understand what it means to see another human being in all her complexity and depth and pain and joy? Can Jacob have an I-Thou experience?
There is more to come for Jacob, however. He wrestles an angel in the middle of the night and, as dawn breaks, asks for a blessing. The angel changes his name from Jacob to Israel. As a rabbi, I have been asked for many blessings; I have never responded, “Your name was Fred – and now it is Irving!” But, of course, the angel was giving Jacob the greatest and most important blessing – that of self-transformation. He did not have to be in the future what he had been in the past.
The next day Jacob goes out and sees his brother Esau – really sees him. Esau witnesses the transformation in the brother he hated and hunted through the years. They fall on each other’s necks and weep.
At times, the greatest act of faith is not to believe in God but to see God in one another. It is not easy, but it can be done. We have before us the model of Jacob our forefather, who gave us all his name, Israel.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of ‘David the Divided Heart.’ Follow him on Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.