Two sides of the story

"Then he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying 'Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from that which belonged to our father he amassed all this wealth’" (Genesis 21:1).

Laban_311 (DO NOT REPUBLISH) (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
This week’s portion, Vayetze, records Jacob’s flight to the land of Aram-Naharayim, where he spends 22 years with his wily and deceptive uncle Laban. Jacob flees because his brother Esau threatened to murder him for deceptively taking the blessings that their father, Isaac, had meant for Esau.
Underlying this fateful act of deception is a tug-of-war between the parents of these rival twins, in which Isaac favors the elder son, Esau, “a man who knows the business of trapping [both by aggressively hunting and by deceitfully ensnaring], a man of the outdoor fields,” whereas Rebekah favors the younger Jacob, “a whole-hearted, naïve man, an introspective and scholarly dweller of tents.”
The disposition of the patrimony would determine which of the two would be heir to the Abrahamic mission of spreading ethical monotheism throughout the world. It seems difficult to understand how Isaac could possibly favor the aggressive Esau over the more studious Jacob.
Moreover, how could Rebekah have orchestrated her son’s deception of his father, her husband? An analysis of these narratives will grant us insight into the tensions within contemporary Israel between the settler movement and Peace Now, and the dangers of the extremist, vigilante “price tag” attacks against Palestinians.
Abraham’s major discovery and legacy was ethical monotheism: the ideals of compassionate righteousness and moral justice promulgated by a God of love, morality and peace.
The qualities involved in fostering such moral excellence and in teaching it to others are far more suited to a “wholehearted dweller in tents” than to an aggressive “master of entrapment, a hunter in the open fields.” Although winning over the errant “souls of Haran” would certainly require a more extroverted personality, Rebekah’s choice of Jacob for the patrimony seems far more logical than Isaac’s choice of Esau.
God’s first commandment to Abraham is to “get forth” to the land of Canaan, and the major content of God’s covenant with Abraham is the promised borders of the Land of Israel, the basic and eternal inheritance of Abraham’s progeny. Such a homeland, which is not the native one of its founder, requires a strong and committed nation to conquer it and protect it. Even Abraham’s lofty ideals require protection from evil purveyors of terrorism and jihad, as Abraham demonstrated when he successfully defeated the four enemy nations who captured innocent civilians, including his nephew Lot.
Isaac, more than the other patriarchs, is inextricably bound up with the Land of Israel.
He alone never sets foot outside the land and he alone is portrayed as working the land in addition to herding sheep: “And Isaac planted seeds in that land, and in that year he reaped one hundred fold; thus did the Lord bless him” (Genesis 26:12).
Even when Isaac was bestowing the blessings and wished to check that he was indeed dealing with the right son, “Isaac his father said to [Jacob], ‘Come close and kiss me, my son.’ And he came close and kissed him; and [Isaac] smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him. He said, ‘Behold, the fragrance of my son is as the fragrance of the fields which the Lord has blessed.’” Isaac loves the Land of Israel, and so is naturally drawn to Esau, who is a man of the fields.
As I explained in last week’s commentary, Isaac had also felt unworthy when he compared himself to his aggressive and militant brother Ishmael.
Isaac never challenges Abimelech, even when the king of the Philistines reneges on his treaty with Abraham, even when he stops up the wells that Abraham had dug, even when he pushes Isaac and his household off the land that is included within the boundaries promised to Abraham’s descendants. He is even bullied into signing another treaty with Abimelech, who has the arrogance to say that he had only done good to Isaac since he sent him away in peace, without killing him.
Isaac believes that the more aggressive and proactive Esau, rather than the retreating and passive Jacob, must become the standard-bearer of God’s covenant and mission. Rebekah, on the other hand, believes that the moral qualities, so lacking in the hedonistic Esau, are cardinal. She recognizes that physical prowess and a degree of aggressiveness are also necessary, but she also remembers how Jacob had grasped onto Esau’s heel, endeavoring to emerge first from the womb.
Rebekah realizes that Jacob possesses physical strength of which Isaac is unaware. She therefore sets out to prove as much, by dressing the moral soul of Jacob in the external garb of Esau.
Rebekah, however, seems to have over-reached her goals. She does not realize that sometimes the crafty and grasping hands of Esau can completely drown out the spiritual voice of Jacob. This is what occurs to Jacob in Laban-land; he out-Labans Laban when he utilizes chicanery in an attempt to manipulate the births of spotted, speckled and striped cows.
Peace Now does not sufficiently understand that a terrorist enemy hell-bent on total domination cannot be won over by more and more concessions. But the settler community must also be exceedingly careful, lest the aggressive hands of Esau choke their Jewish consciences and mute the Divine Voice within us, which forbids the loss of innocent lives. Jacob eventually succeeds in learning this lesson – but only after he becomes Israel.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.