Learning from Jacob: Complexity and Commitment
David Abramowitz is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program. He is the Executive Director of Jewish Leadership Institute, a Jewish identity-building and leadership creation program for college and graduate students. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacob is a complex character. We like “complex.” It denotes an intricacy that leads us to use our best analytical skills. The problem is that Jacob is also complicated. “Complicated” leads to, well, complications. Maybe that wouldn’t matter much except that it is Jacob after whom the People of Israel is named. So we must struggle with the legacy of character our eponymous forefather bestowed upon us.
In this week’s parasha, Vayetze, we see Jacob for the first time on his own, outside of his family’s environment. It doesn’t take but a few verses for the mystery that is Jacob to confront us. Jacob has the famous dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that reaches to the sky. God promises him the same Jewish future he promised to Abraham and Isaac. When Jacob awakens, he says:
If God will be with me, and protect me on the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and see that I return to my father’s house in peace – then the Lord shall be my God. (Gen. 28:20-21)
Throw out complexity and go straight to “Huh?” Can it be that the very first thing Jacob says to God is that he’ll believe in him if he gives him stuff? That he would condition his commitment at all, let alone on such materialistic and pedestrian considerations, is mind-boggling. It’s a very, very long way from Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac to Jacob’s Let’s Make a Deal. But that’s Jacob. Complicated.
The commentaries ply grammatical ambiguities and plumb psychological nuances in an effort to explain Jacob’s behavior. Perhaps there is another way to reach an understanding of this text. Instead of asking why Jacob said what he did, let’s ask why the Torah has Jacob say these words. Why does the Torah see fit to tell us this story?
To answer this question, we jump to the end of Jacob’s life. When he goes to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph he is brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks him how old he is. Jacob’s answer is strange. He tells Pharaoh his age and then without being asked adds, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life.” (Gen. 47:9) Clearly, Jacob doesn’t view his life with satisfaction. With this statement Jacob tells us that he didn’t get what he asked for.
Re-reading our parasha with this knowledge changes our understanding of the words. Jacob’s pretentious demands now bristle with irony. He conditions his commitment to God on having a peaceful life? His life is one long trek through difficulty and pain – from working with Laban to the Leah/Rachel switch to losing Rachel in childbirth to his sons’ hatred for one another. The text ratchets up the irony when Jacob asks for specific things. He asks for food, but not only does he get famine, it is food (that the brothers go to Egypt to get) that brings him the crisis of losing Simeon and Benjamin. The irony reaches the level of rebuke when Jacob asks for clothing. Clothing he demands, and clothing he gets. “And how’s that coat of many colors working out for you, Jacob?” Clothing turns out to be the source of Jacob’s greatest suffering – the loss of Joseph.
Perhaps we have found one explanation for why Jacob is portrayed in such an unsightly manner. His arrogance in making demands of God is a foil to his utter failure to get what he wants. But what is the Torah’s purpose in telling the story this way? It is to highlight Jacob’s extraordinary commitment. Here is a man who didn’t get what he expected, and in many ways got less than the minimum we would expect for ourselves, yet he kept his end of the bargain. He stayed true to God and the Jewish people.
Jacob’s life is a microcosm of Jewish history. As a people we have faced the gamut of trouble: mere impediments, major obstacles and unspeakable tragedies. We haven’t gotten everything we’ve asked for, but like Jacob we can’t walk away. We are obligated to keep our eye on the deep essence of Jewish life. We cannot allow a failure of expectation to distract us from our work of insuring that Judaism flourishes. That’s simple to say but complicated to do. How fortunate then that Jacob gave us the gift of “complicated.”